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Seven Types Of 

William Empson 


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The sorts of meaning to be considered; the problems of 
Pure Sound and of Atmosphere. First-type ambiguities arise 
when a detail is effective in several ways at once, e.g. by com- 
parisons with several points of likeness, antitheses with several 
points of difference (p. 22), ‘ comparative ' adjectives, subdued 
metaphors, and extra meanings suggested by rhythm. Annex 
on Dramatic Irony (p. 38). 


In second-type ambiguities two or more alternative meanings 
are fully resolved into one. Double grammar in Shakespeare 
Sonnets. Ambiguities in Chaucer (p. 58), the eighteenth 
century, T. S. Eliot. Digressions (p. 80) on emendations of 
Shakespeare and on his form ‘The A and B of C.' 


The condition for third-type ambiguity is that two apparently 
unconnected meanings are given simultaneously. Puns from 
Milton, Marvell, Johnson, Pope, Hood. Generalised form 
(p. in) when there is reference to more than one universe of 
discourse; allegory, mutual comparison, and pastoral. Ex- 
amples from Shakespeare, Nash, Pope, Herbert, Gray. Dis- 
cussion of the criterion for this type. 


In the fourth type the alternative meanings combine to make 
clear a complicated state of mind in the author. Complete 
poems by Shakespeare and Donne considered. Examples (p. 
145) of alternative possible emphases in Donne and Hopkins. 
Pope on dowagers praised. Tintem Abbey accused of failing 
to achieve this type. 



CHAPTER V Page 155 

The fifth type is a fortunate confusion, as when the author is 
discovering his idea in the act of writing (examples from 
Shelley) or not holding it all in mind at once (p. 163 ; examples 
from Swinburne). Argument (p. 166) that later metaphysical 
poets were approaching nineteenth-century technique by this 
route; examples from Marvell and Vaughan. 

CHAPTER VI Page 176 

In the sixth type what is said is contradictory or irrelevant and 
the reader is forced to invent interpretations. Examples from 
Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, Tennyson, Herbert (p. 183), Pope, 
Yeats. Discussion of the criterion for this type and its bearing 
on nineteenth-century technique. 


The seventh type is that of full contradiction, marking a divi- 
sion in the author's mind. Freud invoked. Examples (pp. 
198-211) of minor confusions in negation and opposition. 
Seventh-type ambiguities from Shakespeare, Keats, Crashaw, 
Hopkins, and Herbert. 


General discussion of the conditions under which ambiguity is 
valuable and the means of apprehending it. Argument that 
theoretical understanding of it is needed now more than previ- 
ously. Not all ambiguities are relevant to criticism ; example 
from Jonson (p. 242). Discussion of how verbal analysis 
should be carried out and what it can hope to achieve. 


T he first and only previous edition of this book was pub- 
lished sixteen years ago. Till it went out of print, at about 
the beginning of the war, it had a steady sale though a smajl 
one ; and in preparing a second edition the wishes of the buyers 
ought to be considered. Many of them will be ordering a 
group of books on this kind of topic, for a library, compiled 
from bibliographies; some of them maybe only put the book 
oil their list as an awful warning against taking verbal analysis 
too far. Anyway, such a buyer wants the old book, not a new 
one, even if I could make it better. On the other hand, there was 
obviously room to tidy up the old one, and I would not want to 
reprint silently anything I now think false. 

It seemed the best plan to work the old footnotes into the 
text, and make clear that all the footnotes in this edition are 
second thoughts written recently. Sometimes the footnotes dis- 
agree with the text above them; this may seem a fussy process, 
but I did not want to cut too much. Sir Max Beerbohm has a 
fine reflection on revising one of his early works ; he said he tried 
to remember how angry he would have been when he wrote it 
if an elderly pedant had made corrections, and how certain he 
would have felt that the man was wrong. However, I have cut 
out a few bits of analysis (hardly ever without a footnote to say 
so) because they seemed trivial and likely to distract the reader’s 
attention from the main point of the passage; I have tried to 
make some of the analyses clearer, and occasionally written in 
connecting links; the sources of the quotations needed putting 
in; there were a lot of small proof corrections to make; and 
some of the jokes which now seem to me tedious have gone. I 
do not think I have suppressed quietly any bit of analysis which 
would be worth disagreeing over. There is now an index and 
a summary o^ chapters. 

I was surprised there was so little of the book I should prefer 
to change. My attitude in writing it was that an honest man 
erected the ignoring of ‘ tact * into a point of honour. Apart from 



trailing my coat about minor controversies, I claimed at the start 
that I would use the term ‘ambiguity’ to mean anything I liked, 
and repeatedly told the reader that the distinctions between the 
Seven Types which he was asked to study would not be worth 
the attention of a profounder thinker. As for the truth of the 
theory which was to be stated in an irritating manner, I remember 
saying to Professor 1. A. Richards in a ‘supervision’ (he was then 
my teacher and gave me crucial help and encouragement) that all 
the possible mistakes along this line ought to be heaped up and 
published, so that one could sit back and wait to see which were 
the real mistakes later on. Sixteen years later I find myself 
prepared to stand by nearly the whole heap. I have tried to clear 
the text of the gratuitous puzzles of definition and draw attention 
to the real ones. 

The method of verbal analysis is of course the main point of 
the book, but there were two cross-currents in my mind leading 
me away from it. At that time Mr. T. S. Eliot’s criticism in 
particular, and the Zeitgeist in general, were calling for a re- 
consideration of the claims of the nineteenth-century poets so 
as to get them into perspective with the newly discovered merits 
of Donne, Marvell, and Dryden. It seemed that one could only 
eigoy both groups by approaching them with different and in- 
compatible presuppositions, and that this was one of the great 
problems which a critic ought to tackle. My feeling now is not 
so much that what I wrote about the nineteenth century was 
wrong as that I was wrong in tackling it with so much effort and 
preparation. There is no need to be so puzzled about Shelley. 
But I believe that this looking for a puzzle made me discover 
something about Swinburne, and I did not treat the Keats Ode 
to Melancholy as a dated object. 

The second cross-current was the impact of Freud. Some 
literary critics at the time were prepared to ‘collaborate’ with 
the invading psycho-analysts, whereas the honest majority who 
were prepared to fight in the streets either learned fire- watching 
technique or drilled with the Home Guard. This problem, too, 
I think, has largely settled itself in the intervening years, and I 
can claim that my last example of the last type of ambiguity was 
not concerned with neurotic disunion but with a fully public 
theological poem. However, I want now to express my regret 


that the topical interest of Freud distracted me from giving 
adequate representation in the seventh chapter to the poetry of 
straightforward mental conflict, perhaps not the best kind of 
poetry, but one in which our own age has been very rich. I 
had not read Hart Crane when I published the book, and I 
had had the chance to. Mr. T. S. Eliot, some while ago 
(speaking as a publisher), remarked that poetry is a mug’s 
game, and this is an important fact about modern poets. 
When Tennyson retired to his study after breakfast to get 
on with the Idylls there had to be a hush in the house because 
every middle-class household would expect to buy his next pub- 
lication. I believe that rather little good poetry has been written 
in recent years, and that, because it is no longer a profession in 
which ability can feel safe, the effort of writing a good bit of 
verse has in almost every case been carried through almost as a 
clinical thing; it was done only to save the man’s own sanity. 
Exceedingly good verse has been written under these conditions 
in earlier centuries as well as our own, but only to externalise 
the conflict of an individual. It would not have been sensible 
to do such hard work unless the man himself needed it. How- 
ever, if I tried to rewrite the seventh chapter to take in contem- 
porary poetry I should only be writing another book. 

I want here to consider some theoretical points which have 
been raised in criticisms of the book; and I am sorry if I have 
missed or failed to keep some powerful attack which ought to be 
answered. I have remembered a number of minor complaints 
which I have tried to handle in the textual corrections or the 
footnotes. The fundamental arguments against my approach, 
I think, were all put briefly and clearly by Mr. James Smith in 
a review in the Criterion for July 1931; so it is convenient to 
concentrate on that article, though many other critics expressed 
similar views. To some extent I think these objections were 
answered in the text, but obviously they were not answered 
clearly or strongly enough, and if I have anything fresh to say 
I ought to say it now. 

He made objections to my uses of the term ‘ambiguity’ which 
I have tried to handle in re-editing; but I have also to answer 
this sentence: ‘We do not ordinarily accuse a pun, or the better 
type of conceit, of being ambiguous because it manages to say 


two things at onre; its essence would seem to be conciseness 
rather than ambiguity.’ We call it ambiguous, I think, when we 
recognise that there could be a m izzle as to what the author 
m eant, in that alternative views might be take n without sheer 
"nusreadmg. It a pun is quite obvious it Wuld not ordinarily 
'Be calledlimbiguous, because there is no room for puzzling. But 
if an irony is calculated to deceive a section of its readers I think 
it would ordinarily be called ambiguous, even by a critic who has 
never doubted its meaning. No doubt one could say that even 
the most obvious irony is a sort of playing at deception, but it 
may imply that only a comic butt could be deceived, and this 
makes a different sort of irony. Cardinal Newman found 
Gibbon ambiguous, we must suppose, because some remarks 
by the Cardinal imply that he did not know that Gibbon meant 
to be ironical. But most readers would consider the ironies of 
Gibbon unambiguous, though possessed of a ‘double meaning,’ 
because they would feel that no one could be deceived by them. 
Thus the criterion for the ordinary use of the word is that some- 
body might be puzzled, even if not yourself. Now I was fre- 
quently puzzled in considering my examples, though not quite 
in this way. I felt sure that the example was beautiful and that 
I had, broadly speaking, reacted to it correctly. But I did not 
at all know what had happened in this ‘ reaction ’ ; I did not know 
why the example was beautiful. And it seemed to me that I was 
able in some cases partly to explain my feelings to myself by 
teasing out the meanings of the text. Yet these meanings when 
teased out (in a major example) were too complicated to be 
remembered together as if in one glance of the eye ; they had to 
be followed each in turn, as possible alternative reactions to the 
passage ; and indeed there is no doubt that some readers some- 
times do only get part of the full intention. In this way such a 
passage has to be treated as if it were ambiguous, even though 
it may be said that for a good reader it is only ambiguous (in the 
ordinary sense of the term) while he is going through an un- 
necessary critical exercise. Some critics do not like to recognise 
this process because they connect it with Depth Psychology, 
which they regard with fear. But it is ordinary experience that 
our minds work like this ; that we can often see our way through 
a situation, as it were practically, when it would be extremely 


hard to separate out all the elements of the judgment. Most 
children can play catch, and few children are good at dynamics. 
Or the way some people can do anagrams at one shot, and feel 
sure the letters all fit, is a better illustration; because there the 
analytic process is not intePectually difficult but only very 
tedious. And it is clear that this process of seeing tlie thing as 
a whole is particularly usual and important in language; most 
people learn to talk, and they were talking grammar before 
grammarians existed. 

This is not to argue that some elemental and unscholarly 
process is what is in question, nor that what has to be explained 
always happens in a rapid glance of the eye. Indeed, what often 
happens when a piece of writing is felt to offer hidden riches is 
that one phrase after another lights up and appears as the heart 
of it; one part after another catches fire, so that you walk about 
with the thing for several days. To go through the experience 
in question is then slower, not quicker, than the less inspiriting 
process of reading an analysis of it; and the fact that we can 
sometimes grasp a complex meaning quickly as a whole does not 
prove that a radically different mode of thought (an intrusion of 
the lower depths) is there to be feared. 

This is meant as a sketch of the point of view which made 
‘ambiguity* seem a necessary key word; of course, I do not deny 
that the term had better be used as clearly as possible, and that 
there is a use for a separate term ‘ double meanii^ .* for example 
when a pun is not felt to be ambiguous in effect, ^ut it could be 
argued that, until you have done your analysis of the ambiguities, 
you cannot be sure whether the total effect is ambiguous or not; 
and that this forces you in some degree to extend the meaning 
of the term. I wanted in any case to put such a sketch before 
giving a longer quotation from Mr. James Smith’s review, in 
which his objections are more fundamental. As the book went 
on, he said, there was an increasing proportion of examples 
from plays : 

The effect of the dramatic upon the poetic scale is almost sure 
to be u»^«rortunate. The first business of the student of drama, so 
far as he is concerned with ambiguity, is historical ; he records that 
situations are treacherous, that men are consciously or uncon- 
sciously hypocritical, to such or such a degree. The student of 


poetry, on the other hand, has as his first business the passing of a 
judgement of value. It is not his main, or even his imniediate, 
concern that a word can be interpreted, that a sentence can be con- 
strued, in a large number of ways; if he make it his concern, there 
is a danger that, in the enumeration of these ways, judgements of 
value will be forgotten. And unless they are put in at the beginning 
of an analysis they do not of their own account emerge at the end. 
Quite a number of Mr. Empson’s analyses do not seem to have any 
properly critical conclusion ; they are interesting only as revelations 
of the poet’s, or of Mr. Empson’s, ingenious mind. Further, some 
of Mr. Empson’s analyses deal, not with words and sentences, but 
with conflicts supposed to have raged within the author when he 
wrote. Here, it seems to me, he has very probably left poetry 
completely behind. . . . 

There are a number of irrelevancies in Mr. Empson’s book, and 
as in a measure they derive from, so probably in a measure they 
increase, his vagueness as to the nature and scope of ambiguity. 
Finding this everywhere in the drama, in our social experience, in 
the fabric of our minds, he is led to assume it must be discoverable 
everywhere in great poetry. I doubt whether the reader who re- 
members his Sappho, his Dante, or the Lucy poems of Wordsworth 
is even prepared to be convinced of this ; but even if he were he 
could not be so until Mr. Empson had made his position much 
clearer. Is the ambiguity referred to that of life — is it a bundle of 
diverse forces, bound together only by their co-existence? Or is it 
that of a literary device — of the allusion, conceit, or pun, in one of 
their more or less conscious forms? If the first, Mr. Empson ’s 
thesis is wholly mistaken ; for a poem is not a mere fragment of life ; 
it is a fragment that has been detached, considered, and judged by 
a mind. A poem is a noumenon rather than a phenomenon. If the 
second, then at least we can say that Mr. Empson ’s thesis is ex- 

I thought this ought to be reprinted with the book, if only 
because it puts clearly what many readers will feel. Other 
reviewers made an illustrative point along the same line of 
objection : that in learning a foreign language the great thing is 
to learn to cut out the alternative meanings which are logically 
possible ; you are always liable to bring them up till you have 
‘grasped the spirit’ of the language, and then you know they 
aren’t meant. Of course, I don’t deny that the method could lead 
to a shocking amount of nonsense ; in fact, as a teacher of English 
literature in foreign countries I have always tried to warn my 
students off the book. It is clear that we have to exercise a good 
deal of skill in cutting out implications that aren’t wanted in 


reading poems, and the proof of our succecs is that we are 
actually surprised when they are brought out by a parody. 
However, I recognised in the book that one does not want merely 
irrelevant ambiguities, and I should claim to have had some 
success in keeping them out. To be sure, the question how far 
unintended or even unwanted extra meanings do in fact impose 
themselves, and thereby drag our minds out of their path in 
spite of our efforts to prevent it, is obviously a legitimate one ; 
and some of the answers may be important. But it is not one 
I was much concerned with in this book. 

In the same way, when Mr. James Smith said that I often left 
out the judgment of value he was of course correct. Many of 
tne examples are only intended to show that certain techniques 
have been widely used. Even in the fuller examples, where I 
hope I have made clear what I feel about the poem as a whole, 
I don’t try to ‘ make out a case ’ for my opinion of its value. The 
judgment indeed comes either earlier or later than the process 
which I was trying to examine. You think the poem is worth 
the trouble before you choose to go into it carefully, and you 
know more about what it is worth when you have done so. It 
might be argued that a study of the process itself is not really 
‘criticism’ ; but this change of name would not prove that there 
is any fundamental fallacy in trying to study it. No doubt the 
study would be done badly if there were wrong judgments 
behind it, but that is another thing. 

The distinction made by Mr. James Smith between the 
dramatic situation and the judgment of the poet is, therefore, a 
more fundamental objection. It seems to me one of those neces- 
sary simplifications, without which indeed life could not go 
forward, but which are always breaking down. Good poetry is 
usually written from a background of conflict, though no doubt 
more so in some periods than in others. The poet, of course, has 
to judge what he has written and get it right, and his readers 
and critics have to make what they can of it too. When Mr. 
James Smith objected to my dealing with ‘conflicts supposed to 
have raged within the author’ I think he was overplaying his 
hand very seriously; he was striking at the roots of criticism, 
not at me. If critics are not to put up some pretence of under- 
standing the feelings of the author in hand they must condemn 


themselves to contempt. And besides, the judgment of the 
author may be wrong. Mr. Robert Graves (I ought to say in 
passing that he is, so far as I know, the inventor of the method of 
analysis I was using here) has remarked that a poem might 
happen to survive which later critics called ‘the best poem the 
age produced/ and yet there had been no question of publishing 
it in that age, and the author had supposed himself to have 
destroyed the manuscript. As I remember, one of the best- 
known short poems by Blake is actually crossed out by the 
author in the notebook which is the only source of it. This 
has no bearing on any ‘conflict* theory; it is only part of the 
difficulty as to whether a poem is a noumenon or a phenomenon. 
Critics have long been allowed to say that a poem may be some*- 
thing inspired which meant more than the poet knew. 

The topic seems to me important, and I hope I may be 
allowed to digress to illustrate it from painting. As I write 
there is a grand semi-government exhibition of the painter 
Constable in London, very ample, but starring only two big 
canvases, both described as ‘studies.* Constable painted them 
only as the second of three stages in making an Academy 
picture, and neither could nor would ever have exhibited them. 
I do not know how they survived. They are being called by 
some critics (quite wrongly, I understand) the roots of the 
whole nineteenth-century development of painting. It seems 
obvious to many people now that they are much better than 
Constable’s finished works, including the two that they are 
‘studies* for. However, of course, nobody pretends that they 
were an uprush of the primitive or in some psychological way 
‘not judged* by Constable. When he got an idea he would 
make a preliminary sketch on the spot, then follow his own 
bent in the studio (obviously very fast), and then settle down on 
another canvas to make a presentable picture out of the same 
theme. ‘My picture is going well,* he remarks in a letter, ‘I 
have got rid of most of my spottiness and kept in most of my 
freshness.* You could defend the judgment of Constable by 
saying that he betrayed his art to make a living, but this would 
oe absurdly unjust to him; at least Constable would have re- 
sented it, and he does not seem to have had any gnawing con- 
viction that the spottiest version was the best one. Of course, the 


present fashion for preferring it may be wrong too ; the point 
I am trying to make is that this final ‘judgment* is a thing which 
must be indefinitely postponed. Would Mr. James Smith say 
that the ‘study*, which is now more admired than the finished 
work, was a noumenon or a phenomenon ? I do not se^ any way 
out of the dilemma which would leave the profound truths he 
was expressing much importance for a practical decision. 

The strongest point of Mr. James Smith*s criticism, I felt, 
was the accusation that, owing to my vagueness about ambiguity, 
I supposed it to exist everywhere in great poetry, whereas this 
would obviously be false about Sappho, Dante, and Wordsworth 
on Lucy. Oddly enough among the other reviewers at the time, 
one chose a passage from Dante and another from Wordsworth 
on Lucy to make a rather different point. They used the lines 
they quoted as examples of the real ambiguity of great poetry, 
a thing, they said, which underlay the superficial and finicking 
ambiguities I had considered, and gave them whatever value 
they had. These views are perhaps not really very unlike, 
though I would feel more at home with the second. But it 
seems clear that I ought to try to answer a question: What 
claim do I make for the sort of ambiguity I consider here, and 
is all good poetry supposed to be ambiguous ? 

I think that it is ; but I am ready to believe that the methods 
I was developing would often be irrelevant to the demonstration. 
As I understand it, there is always in great poetry a feeling of 
generalisation from a case which has been presented definitely; 
there is always an appeal to a background of human experience 
which is all the more present when it cannot be named. I do 
not have to deny that the narrower chisel may cut more deeply 
into the heart. What I would suppose is that, whenever a 
receiver of poetry is seriously moved by an apparently simple 
line, what are moving in him are the traces of a great part of his 
past experience and of the structure of his past judgments. 
Considering what it feels like to take real pleasure in verse, I 
should think it surprising, and on the whole rather disagreeable, 
if even the most searching criticism of such lines of verse could 
find nothing whatever in their implications to be the cause of 
so straddling a commotion and so broad a calm. 


AN ambiguity, in ordinary speech, means something very pro- 
xxnounced, and as a rule witty or deceitful. I propose to use 
the word in an extended sense, and shall think relevant to my 
subject any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for 
alternative reactions to the same piece of language.^ Sometimes, 
especially in this firstchapter, the word may be kretched ab- 
surdly far, but it is descriptive because it suggests the analytical 
mode of approach, and with that I am concerned. 

In a sufficiently extended sense any prose statement could be 
called ambiguous. In the first place it can be analysed. Thus, 
‘ The brown cat sat on the red mat’ may be split up into a series : 
‘ This is a statement about a cat. The cat the statement is about 
is brown,’ and so forth. Each such simple statement may be 
translated into a complicated statement which employs other 
terms ; thus you are now faced with the task of explaining what 
a ‘cat’ is; and each such complexity may again be analysed into 
a simple series; thus each of the things that go to make up a 
‘cat’ will stand in some spatial relation to the ‘mat.’ ‘Explana- 
tion,’ by choice of terms, may be carried in any direction the 
explainer wishes ; thus to translate and analyse the notion of ‘ sat ’ 
might involve a course of anatomy; the notion of ‘on’ a theory 
of gravitation. Such a course, however, would be irrelevant not 
only to my object in this essay but to the context implied by the 
statement, the person to whom it seems to be addressed, and the 
purpose for which it seems to be addressed to him; nor would 
you be finding out anything very fundamental about the sentence 
by analysing it in this way; you would merely be making another 
sentence, stating the same fact, but designed for a different pur- 
pose, context, and person. Evidently, the literary critic is much 
concerned with implications of this last sort, and must regard 
them as a main part of the meaning. There is a difference (you 

^ In the first edition I made it ‘ adds some nuance to the direct statement of 
prose.* This, as was pointed out, begs a philosophical question and stretches 
the term ‘ a^^ioiguity * so far that it becomes almost meaningless. The new 
phrase is not meant to be decisive but to avoid confusing the reader ; natur- 
^ly the question ot what would be the best definition of ‘ ambiguity * (whether 
the example in hand should be called ambiguous) crops up all through the 




may say that between thought and feeling) between the fact 
stated and the circumstance of the statement, but very often you 
cannot know one without knowing the other, and an apprehen- 
sion of the sentence involves both without distinguishing between 
them. Thus I should consider ^ on the same footing the two 
facts about this sentence, that it is about a cat and that it is suited 
to a child. And I should only isolate two of its ‘meanings,’ to 
form an ambiguity worth notice; it has contradictory associa- 
tions, which might cause some conflict in the child who heard it, 
in that it might come out of a fairy story and might come out of 
Reading without Tears. 

In analysing the statement made by a sentence (having, no 
doubt, fixed on the statement by an apprehension of the implica- 
tions of the sentence), one would continually be dealing with a 
sort of ambiguity due to metaphors, made clear by Mr. Herbert 
Read in English Prose Style \ because metaphor, more or less 
far-fetched, more or less complicated, more or less taken for 
granted (so as to be unconscious), is the normal mode of develop- 
ment of a language. ‘Words used as epithets are words used to 
analyse a direct statement,’ whereas ‘metaphor is the synthesis of 
several units of observation into one commanding image; it is 
the expression of a complex idea, not by analysis, nor by direct 
statement, but by a sudden perception of an objective relation.’ 
One thing is said to be like another, and they have several differ- 
ent properties in virtue of which they are alike. Evidently this, 
as a verbal matter, yields more readily to analysis than the social 
ambiguities I have just considered; and I shall take it as normal 
to the simplest type of ambiguity, which I am considering in this 
chapter. The fundamental sitbation, whether it deserves to be 
called ambiguous o r not, is that H word or a grammatical struc- 
ture is effec tive m several ways at onc e. To take a famous 
example, ther e is no pun, double syntax, or du biety of feeling, in 

Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang, 

but the comparison holds for many reasons; because ruined 
monastery choirs are places in which to sing, becauce ^hey involve 
sitting in a row, because they are made of wood, are carved into 
knots and so forth, because they used to be surrounded by a 
sheltering building crystallised out of the likeness of a forest, and 


coloured with stained glass and painting like howers and leaves, 
because they are now abandoned by all but the grey walls col- 
oured like the skies of winter, because the cold and Narcissistic 
charm suggested by choir-boys suits well with Shakespeare’s 
feeling for the object of the Sonnets, and for various sociological 
and historical reasons (the protestant destruction of monasteries ; 
fear of puritanism), which it would be hard now to trace out in 
their proportions; these reasons, and many more relating the 
simile to its place in the Sonnet, must all combine to give the 
line its beauty, and there is a sort of ambiguity in not know- 
ing which of them to hold most clearly in mind. Clearly this 
is involved in all such richness and heightening of effect, and 
the machinations of ambiguity are among the very roots of 

Such a definition of the first type of ambiguity covers almost 
everything of literary importance, and this chapter ought to be 
my longest and most illuminating, but it is the most difficult. 
The important meanings of this sort, as may be seen from the 
example about the cat, are hard to isolate, or to be sure of when 
you have done so ; and there is a sort of meaning, the sort that 
people are thinking of when they say ‘ this poet will mean more 
to you when you have had more experience of life,’ which is 
hardly in reach of the analyst at all. They mean by this not so 
much that you will have more information (which could be given 
at once) as that the information will have been digested; that 
you will be more experienced in the apprehension of verbal 
subtleties or of the poet’s social tone; that you will have become 
the sort of person that can feel at home in, or imagine, or extract 
experience from, what is described by the poetry; that you will 
have included it among the things you are prepared to apprehend. 
There is a distinction here of the implied meanings of a sentence 
into what is to be assimilated at the moment and what must 
already be part of your habits; in arriving at the second of these 
the educator (that mysterious figure) rather than the analyst would 
be helpful. In a sense it cannot be explained in language, be- 
cause to a person who does not understand it any statement of it 
is as difficult as the original one, while to a person who does 
understand it a statement of it has no meaning because no 


Meanings of tLis kind, indeed, are conveyed, but they are 
conveyed much more by poets than by analysts; that is what 
poets are for, and why they are important. For poetry has 
powerful means of imposing its own assumptions, and is very 
independent of the mental habits of the reader; one might trace 
its independence to the ease with which it can pass from the one 
to the other of these two sorts of meaning. A single word, 
dropped where it comes most easily, without being stressed, and 
as if to fill out the sentence, may signal to the reader what he is 
meant to be taking for granted; if it is already in his mind the 
word will seem natural enough and will not act as an unnecessary 
signal. Once it has gained its point, on further readings, it will 
take for granted that you always took it for granted ; only very 
delicate people are as tactful in this matter as the printed page. 
Nearly all statements assume in this way that you know some- 
thing but not everything about the matter in hand, and would 
tell you something different if you knew more; but printed 
commonly differ from spoken ones in being intended for a 
greater variety of people, and poetical from prosaic ones in 
imposing the system of habits they imply more firmly or more 

As examples of the things that are taken for granted in this 
way, and assume a habit, rather than a piece of information, in 
the reader, one might give the fact that a particular section of the 
English language is being used; the fact that English is being 
used, which you can be conscious of if you can use French; the 
fact that a European language is used, which you can be conscious 
of if you can use Chinese. The first of these ‘facts’ is more 
definite than it sounds ; a word in a speech which falls outside the 
expected vocabulary will cause an uneasy stir in all but the sound- 
est sleepers; many sermons use this with painful frankness. 
Evidently such a section is defined by its properties rather than 
by enumeration, and so alters the character of the words it 
includes; for instance, one would bear it in mind when con- 
sidering whether the use of a word demands that one should 
consider its derivation. Regional or dialect poets a’-e likely to 
use words flatly from that point of view. No single example of so 
delicate and continuous a matter can be striking; I shall take one 
at random out of the Synge Deirdre^ to make clear that a word 


need not be unpoetical merely because its meaning has been 
limited : 

Deirdre. ... It should be a sweet thing to have what is best and 
richest, if it’s for a short space only. 

Naisi. And we’ve a short space only to be triumphant and brave. 

The language here seems rich in implications ; it certainly carries 
much feeling and conveys a delicate sense of style. But if one 
thinks of the Roman or medieval associations of triumphant^ even 
of its normal use in English, one feels a sort of unexplained warn- 
ing that these are irrelevant; the word here is a thin counter 
standing for a notion not fully translated out of Irish; it is used 
to eke out that alien and sliding speech-rhythm, which puts no. 
weight upon its single words.^ 

The process of becoming accustomed to a new author is very 
much that of learning what to exclude in this way, and this first 
of the three ‘facts,’ hard as it may be to explain in detail, is one 
with which appreciative critics are accustomed to deal very 
effectively. But the other two are more baffling; one can say 
little about the quality of a language, if only because the process 
of describing it in its own language is so top-heavy, and the words 
of another language will not describe it. The English preposi- 
tions, for example, from being used in so many ways and in 
combination with so many verbs, have acquired not so much a 
number of meanings as a body of meaning continuous in several 
dimensions; a tool-like quality, at once thin, easy to the hand, 
and weighty, which a mere statement of their variety does not 
convey. In a sense all words have a body of this sort ; none can 
be reduced to a finite number of points, and if they could the 
points could not be conveyed by words. 

Thus a word may have several distinct meanings; several 
meanings connected with one another; several meanings which 
need one another to complete their meaning ; or several meanings 
which unite together so that the word means one relation or one 
process. This is a scale which might be followed continuously. 
‘Ambiguity’ itself can mean an indecision as to what you mean, 
an intentio"" to mean several things, a probability that one or 
other or both of two things has been meant, and the fact that a 

^ Not a clear example, and I am not sure that what I said is true ; but a 
borderline example was needed here to show that fine shades can be concerned. 


statement has several meanings.^ It is useful to be able to separ- 
ate these if you wish, but it is not obvious that in separating them 
at any particular point you will not be raising more problems than 
you solve. Thus I shall often use the ambiguity of ‘ambiguity,’ 
and pronouns like ‘ one,’ to make stotements covering both reader 
and author of a poem, when I want to avoid raising irrelevant 
problems as to communication. To be less ambiguous would be 
like analysing the sentence about the cat into a course of anatomy. 
In the same way the words of the poet will, as a rule, be more 
justly words, what they represent will be more effectively a unit 
in the mind, than the more numerous words with which I shall 
imitate their meaning so as to show how it is conveyed. 

And behind this notion of the word itself, as a solid tool rathe.* 
than as a collection of meanings, must be placed a notion of the 
way such a word is regarded as a member of the language ; this 
seems still darker and less communicable in any terms but its 
own. For one may know what has been put into the pot, and 
recognise the objects in the stew, but the juice in which they are 
sustained must be regarded with a peculiar respect because they 
are all in there too, somehow, and one does not know how they 
are combined or held in suspension. One must feel the respect 
due to a profound lack of understanding for the notion of a 
potential, and for the poet’s sense of the nature of a language. 

These examples of the ‘meanings’ of an English sentence 
should make clear that no explanation, certainly no explanation 
written in English, can be conceived to list them completely ; and 
that there may be implications (such as I should call meanings) 
of which a statement would be no use. Neither of these are 
objections to my purpose, because I can assume that my readers 
already understand and enjoy the examples I shall consider, and 
I am concerned only to conduct a sufficient analysis of their 
enjoyment to make it seem more understandable. 

It is possible that there are some writers who write very largely 
with this sense of a language as such, so that their effects would 
be almost out of reach of analysis. Racine always seems to me to 
write with the whole^^weight of the French language^ to remind 

^ It would seem pedantic to alter the phrase ‘ has several meanings,* but 
it is treacherous. If the simplest statement has a subject find a predicate it 
may be said to include two meanings. There would be no point in calling it 
ambiguous unless it gave room for alternative reactiops. 


one always of the latent assumptions of French in a way that I 
am not competent to analyse in any case, but that very possibly 
could not be explained in intelligible terms. Dryden is a corre- 
sponding English figure in this matter; Miss Gertrude Stein, 
too, at this point, implores the passing tribute of a sigh. To 
understand their methods one might have to learn a great deal 
about the mode of action of language which is not yet known, and 
it might always be quicker to use habit than analysis, to learn the 
language than to follow the explanation. 

I propose, then, to consider a series of definite and detachable 
ambiguities, in which several large and crude meanings can be 
separated out, and to arrange them in order of increasing distance 
from simple statement and logical exposition. There is much 
danger of triviality in this, because it requires a display of in- 
genuity such as can easily be used to escape from the conscious- 
ness of one’s ignorance; because it ignores the fact that the 
selection of meanings is more important to the poet than their 
multitude, and harder to understand; and because it gives no 
means of telling how much has been done by meanings latent in 
the mode of action of the language, which may be far more 
elaborate and fundamental than those that can be written up. 
My methods can only be applied at intervals; I shall frequently 
pounce on the least interesting aspect of a poem, as being large 
enough for my forceps ; and the atoms which build up the com- 
pounds I analyse will always be more complex than they. But 
in so far as anything can be said about this mysterious and im- 
portant matter, to say it ought not to require apology. 

I shall almost always take poems that I admire, and write with 
pleasure about their merits ; you might say that, from the scien- 
tific point of view, this is a self-indulgence, and that as much is 
to be learnt from saying why bad poems are bad. This would be 
true if the field were of a known size ; if you knew the ways in 
which a poem might be good, there would be a chance of seeing 
why it had failed. But, in fact, you must rely on each particular 
poem to show you the way in which it is trying to be good ; if it 
fails you cannot know its object ; and it would be trivial to explain 
why it had tailed at something it was not trying to achieve. Of 
course, it may succeed in doing something that you understand 
and hate, and you may then explain your hatred; but all you can 


explain about the poem is its success. And even then, you can 
only have understood the poem by a stirring of the imag(ination, 
by something like an enjoyment of it from which you afterwards 
revolt in your own mind. It is more self-centred, therefore, and 
so less reliable, to write about the poems you have thought bad 
than about the poems you have thought good. 

But, before I start to do this, I must consider two fundamental 
objections to my purpose, which many critics would raise; the 
objection that the meaning of poetry does not matter, because it 
is apprehended as Pure Sound, and the objection that what really 
matters about poetry is the Atmosphere. These* two opinions 
are very similar, but are best answered in different ways. 

The main argument for Pure Sound is the extreme oddity ^f 
the way poetry acts ; the way lines seem beautiful without reason ; 
the way you can decide (or at any rate people in practice do 
decide) whether a poem deserves further attention by a mere 
glance at the way it uses its words. This certainly is an import- 
ant piece of evidence, and makes one feel that very strange things 
may be true about the mode of action of poetry, but it shows very 
little as to what these things may be. I shall myself try to bully 
my readers into a belief in the importance of ambiguity, for just 
this same reason. 

There was a period of the cult of Pure Sound when infants 
were read passages from Homer, and then questioned as to their 
impressions, not unlike Darwin playing the trombone to his 
French beans. And, indeed, conclusive evidence was collected 
in this way that a vague impression as to the subject of a poem 
may be derived from a study of its reciter ; one can only question 
how far this is relevant to the question at issue. There is a crux 
here (to revive a rather stale controversy) which makes experi- 
ment difficult; on the one hand, it is no use telling a person who 
does not know Greek to read Homer for himself, because he does 
not know how to pronounce it (even if he knows how to pro- 
nounce the words, he will not pronounce them as a sentence) ; on 
the other hand, if you tell him how to pronounce the sentence, it 
is impossible to be sure you have not told him how to feel about 
it by the tone of your voice. Certainly it is no us^anying that 
feelings can be conveyed, even between animSls of different 
species, by grunts and screams; and there are those who say that 


language itself was at first a self-explanatory symbolism, based on 
these expressions of feeling, on onomatopoeia, and on that use of 
the tongue to point at matters of interest, or to imitate and so 
define a difficult action, which may be seen in a child learning to 
mite. Certainly, too, one would expect language in poetry to 
retain its primitive uses more than elsewhere. But this sort of 
thing is no use to the admirers of Pure Sound in poetry, because 
a grunt is at once too crude and too subtle to be conveyed by the 
alphabet at all. Any word can be either screamed or grunted, so 
if you have merely a word written on paper you have to know not 
only its meaning but something about its context before it can 
tell you whether to grunt or to scream. Most admirers of Pure 
Sound, indeed, will admit that you have to be experienced in the 
words used by a poet before their sound can be appreciated, and 
evidently this admission makes all the difference. 

They are the more willing to admit this because they are 
usually appreciative critics, persons of an extreme delicacy of 
sensibility who have to guard this delicacy in unusual ways. A 
first-rate wine-taster may only taste small amounts of wine, for 
fear of disturbing his palate, and I dare say it would really be 
unwise for an appreciative critic to use his intelligence too freely; 
but there is no reason why these specialised habits should be 
imposed on the ordinary drinker or reader. Specialists usually 
have a strong Trades Union sense, and critics have been perhaps 
too willing to insist that the operation of poetry is something 
magical, to which only their own method of incantation can be 
applied, or like the growth of a flower, which it would be folly 
to allow analysis to destroy by digging the roots up and crushing 
out the juices into the light of day. Critics, as ‘ barking dogs,’ on 
this view, are of two sorts : those who merely relieve themselves 
against the flower of beauty, and those, less continent, who after- 
wards scratch it up. I myself, I must confess, aspire to the second 
of these classes; unexplained beauty arouses an irritation in me, 
a sense that this would be a good place to scratch; the reasons 
that make a line of verse likely to give pleasure, I believe, are like 
the reasons for anything else; one can reason about them; and 
while it nay be true that the roots of beauty ought not to be 
violated, it seenis to me very arrogant of the appreciative critic to 
think that he could do this, if he chose, by a little scratching. 


One reason, by^the way, that the belief in Pure Sound is plaus- 
ible seems interesting; it is that people often test it by experi- 
ments within their own family of languages. They know, say, a 
novel-reading amount of French, a public-school amount of 
Latin, half-forgotten, and a smatte/ing of Italian ; they try read- 
ing the Oxford Book of Spanish VersCy and are impressed by the 
discovery that they can get a great deal of pleasure out of in- 
dividual lines without understanding the ‘meaning’ at all. Now 
such poetry is in a tradition to which they are accustomed ; they 
know roughly what to look for in the poetry of a Latin language ; 
they know what the syntax connecting one or two large words is 
likely to be ; and they are almost sure to know the root meaning 
(though not the precise meaning) of the one or two large words*. 
It seems to be true that with this equipment one has a very fair 
chance of seeing what I may call the ‘ lyrical point ’ of one or two 
lines. This may be an important piece of evidence about the 
mode of action of poetry, but as far as it concerns Pure Sound one 
must remember that such people will be pronouncing the lines 
entirely wrong. (And Vergil remains the most melodious of 
poets through all the vagaries of official pronunciation.) 

Such points would be admitted by most reasonable people, and 
it may seem an evasion on my part to attack Pure Sound as a 
defence of the opposite fallacy of Pure Meaning. But the situa- 
tion about Pure Sound is like that about crude materialism ; both 
beliefs lead a sort of underground existence, and at a low level of 
organisation have much vitality. Crude materialism is the first 
rough idea that people tumble into when they are interested in 
the sciences. In the same way, if you ask people in general about 
the interpretation of poetry, they are likely to say that it is no 
use talking because what they like is the sheer beauty of the 

The official, and correct, view, I take it, is that ‘ the sound must 
be an echo to the sense,’ that we do not know what this condition 
may be, but that if we knew a great deal it could be analysed in 
detail. Thus 

Tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amoaw 

(Aerkidy vi.) 

(the stock line to try on the dog) is beautiful because ulteriorisy 


the word of their banishment, is long, and so shows that they 
have been waiting a long time; and because the repeated vowel- 
sound (itself the moan of hopeless sorrow) in oris amove connects 
the two words as if of their own natures, and makes desire belong 
necessarily to the unattainable. This I think quite true, but it is 
no use deducing from it Tennyson’s simple and laborious cult of 
onomatopoeia. Once you abandon the idea that sounds are valu- 
able in themselves you are thrown far towards the other extreme ; 
you must say that the sounds are valuable because they suggest 
incidental connections of meaning. If this be true, one can do a 
great deal to make poetry intelligible by discussing the variety of 
resultant meanings, without committing oneself very deeply as to 
how they have been suggested by the sounds. 

In claiming so much for analysis I shall seem to be aligning 
myself with the ‘scientific’ mode of literary criticism, with 
‘psychological’ explanations of everything, and columns of a 
reader’s sensitivity-coefficients. There is coming into existence 
a sort of party-system among critics; those critics will soon be 
considered mere shufflers who are not either only interested in 
Truth or only interested in Beauty; and Goodness, the third 
member of that indissoluble trinity, has somehow got attached 
only to Truth, so that aesthetes are expected to profess a playful 
indifference to the principles on which they in fact (one is to 
assume) order their own lives. It is odd, and I think harmful, 
that this fin-de-siecle squabble is still going on. Somewhere in 
the eighties of the last century the idea got about that Physics, 
and those sciences that might be conceived as derivatives of 
Physics, held a monopoly of Reason ; aesthetes had therefore to 
eschew Reason. Now there are serious difficulties about apply- 
ing the scientific view of truth to the arts; I shall attempt to 
restate them in my last chapter. But the belief that Reason can 
be applied to the arts is as old as criticism, and fundamental to it; 
there is no more materialism about it than there is about Aris- 
totle. And if one is to be forced to take sides, as a matter of mere 
personal venom, I must confess I find the crudity and latent 
fallacy of a psychologist discussing verses that he does not enjoy 
less disagreeable than the blurred and tasteless refusal to make 
statements of an aesthete who conceives himself to be only inter- 
ested in Taste, 


Johnson’s reiparks about the correspondence theory are not to 
be despised, particularly in the 92nd Rambler: * 

There is nothing in the art of versifying so much exposed to the 
power of imagination as the accommodation of the sound to the 
sense. It is scarcely to be doubted that on many occasions we make 
the music that we imagine ourselves to hear, that we modulate the 
poem by our own disposition, and ascribe to the numbers the effects 
of the sense. 

But on the other hand : 

The measure of time in pronouncing may be varied so as very 
strongly to represent, not only the modes of external.motion, but the 
quick or slow succession of ideas, and consequently the passions of 
the mind. 

. * 

His examples certainly show very clearly that there is no single 

mode of correspondence ; that very similar devices of sound may 
correspond effectively to very different meanings. And often 
enough in Milton, for instance, it is the opposite of onomatopoeia 
which is employed ; thus in the lines about Vulcan — 
thrown by angry Jove 

Sheer o’er the crystal battlements; from mom 
To noon he fell, from noon to dewy eve, 

A summer’s day ; and with the setting sun 
Dropped from the zenith — 

Milton is extremely cool about the matter; one is made to sit 
with him pleasantly in the shade, all day long, needing no further 
satisfaction; it is delightfully soothing to feel that the devil is all 
the time falling faster and faster. But this is only to say that a 
sound effect must be interpreted. I think myself its most im- 
portant mode of action is to connect two words by similarity of 
sound so that you are made to think of their possible connections. 

Another of Johnson’s remarks brings up some questions which 
deserve mention : 

Dionysius himself tells us, that the sound of Homer’s verses 
sometimes exhibits the idea of corporal bulk: is not this a discovery 
nearly approaching to that of the blind man, who, after long enquiry 
into the nature of the scarlet colour, found that it represented 
nothing so much as the clangour of a tmmpet ? 

The blind man seems to have anticipated Miss SitweM, who has 
actually used this comparison, I think very justly. •She also writes 
The light is braying like an ass, 


which of course depends for its efltect on the whole scene de- 
scribed. In such cases, apprehension in terms of 6ne of the 
senses is described in terms of, or compared with, one of the 
others; this has been called synaesthesia, and is clearly some- 
times effective. It throws back the reader upon the undiffer- 
entiated affective states which are all that such sensations have in 
common; perhaps recalls him to an infantile state before they 
had been distinguished from one another; and may actually 
induce a sort of rudimentary disorder into his modes of sensation 
(so that the ‘images’ of the visualiser are transformed sounds) 
like those due to migraine or epilepsy or drugs like mescal. 
Mescal-eaters have just that impression common among readers 
of pure’ poetry, that they are seeing very delightful but quite 
new colours, or knowing something which would be very im- 
portant and interesting if they could make out just what it was. 
But how such a disturbance can be of serious importance to a 
reader of poetry it is not easy to see ; or how one is to be sure 
when it is occurring. Often it is no more than a device for in- 
sisting on ambiguities of the first type ; the main comparison is 
neither true nor false, and one is thrown back on a series of 
possible associations, as to the social setting in which these sensa- 
tions would be expected, or the mood in which they would be 
sought out. Miss Sitwell seemed often to use the device rather 
as a flag of defiance, to insist that the main meaning is not what 
she valued, and the reader must put himself into a poetic or re- 
ceptive frame of mind, (‘ These two things are alike in that, for 
quite different reasons, they harmonise with my mood.’) But in 
a way this is only to push the notion of correspondence further 
back; how do these sensations come to seem proper to their 
social setting or their mood? Poe often seems excited about 
colours in a way that reminds one of people’s reports from mescal, 
but then it is a Mexican drug and he had probably tried it; one 
cannot deduce anything very profound about poetry from that. 
And Swinburne often uses devices that seem to demand syn- 

Thy voice is an odour that fades in a flame, 

and suchlike ; but that is only part of his diffused use of grammar, 
by which several precise conceits can be dissolved into a vague- 


ness; it would* probably be a misreading here to confuse the 
modes of sensation. Nor, so far as I can see, is his use of the 
device at all similar to that made of it by Miss Sitwell. 

Of course, when a poet is describing paintings, as Spenser does 
so often, the colours mentionedf are supposed to act on one as 
they would do in a painting. Now, it is naturally harder to 
analyse the visual arts than poetry, because their modes of satis- 
faction are further removed from the verbal system on which the 
discursive intelligence usually supports itself. In any case, I am 
not competent to do such a thing and shall not attempt it here ; 
I mention this mysterious matter as a way in which poetry might 
be taking effect, but which I shall assume I can ignore. And it 
seems worth uttering the pious hope that such effects do not really 
depend on an obscure physiological perversion, which could be 
exploited separately, so as to ‘deceive’; but that there is a field 
for analysis in the way the paintings admired by a particular school 
of poets are assumed as elements of sensibility, and referred to 
covertly, in their poetry. 

So the discovery of the blind man may have its importance, but 
we must now turn to what Dionysius himself saidy which may be 
very important indeed. I mentioned a moment ago the theory 
that language is fundamentally a system of gestures with the 
tongue ; there is no doubt that, once the advocate of Pure Sound 
has admitted that sound has some connection with meaning. Sir 
Richard Paget’s method of interpretation gives him a great deal 
of rational support. Every one feels that, quite apart from words 
like ‘pop,’ which are like their meaning, there are words like 
‘ wee,’ which are fitted to their meaning; the Paget theory would 
explain this (taking only the vowel, for this brief example) by 
saying that while ‘huge’ moves the tongue back from the teeth 
so as to make as large a space as it can, ‘wee’ moves the tongue 
near to the teeth so as to leave as small a space as it can. In this 
way, not the sound itself, but our experience of the way it is pro- 
duced, does, in fact, continually exhibit the idea of corporal bulky 
which is just what Johnson thought impossible. All the sounds 
may be reduced to gestures in this way, more or4#6s fancifully; 
they all, then, carry some suggestion of size, or^hape, or move- 
ment, or pressure, up, down, forward, or backward, and, in 
themselves, that is all they can convey. This theory would have 


a peculiar charm for the materialists who wanted to explain every- 
thing in terms of Euclid and Newton; it offers a sort of guarantee 
that the explanation will be a picture on the blackboard. It is 
rather bad luck that it should be developed so late, when the 
faith even of physicists in pictures on the blackboard is not what 
it was, but that it explains some part of the effect of language it 
would be hard to deny. 

Evidently there is here another field for the future analysis of 
poetry; when it becomes possible to list the root notions that the 
words must by their own nature be suggesting, it will be possible 
and profitable to discuss in some detail how far their sound is an 
echo to their sense. But such a process will always be subject to 
curious limitations ; 

. . . owing to the comparative paucity of different mouth-gestures, 
each mouth-gesture — ^which produces its own particular sound or 
root word — has to stand for a considerable number of hand- (or 
other bodily) gestures ; to put it in another way, each root word is 
naturally liable to bear many different meanings. . . . One other 
point may be noted; the same mouth-gesture may be naturally 
construed in several different ways. Thus, the movement of 
tongue or lips may represent a pantomimic movement, symbolising 
a real movement, or a spatial relation of some kind, e.g, above, 
below, around, or it may represent a shape of some kind drawn in 
outline. Finally, any of these meanings may be used figuratively 
instead of concretely. 

(Sir Richard Paget, Human Speech.) 

Apart, then, from the ambiguities in the fully-developed lan- 
guage, such as I propose to consider, one would have also to 
consider the ambiguities (of the same sort, but entirely different 
in their details) which are always latent in the fundamental 
symbolism of the sound. 

This suggests that the process of analysing the effect of a poem, 
not indeed completely, but sufficiently to be any use, must be 
one of altogether impossible complexity; that one must instead 
give up all hope of doing such a thing, and fall back on a doctrin- 
aire irrationalism. It is true that no explanation can be adequate, 
but, on the o^her hand, any one valid reason that can be found is 
worth giving; the more one understands one’s own reactions 
the less one is at their mercy. 

Thus it seems to be fairly true, as a matter of introspection, 


that one judges liie quality of a poem by something felt as ‘ sound’ 
and something felt as ‘ rhythm,’ but there are no necessary deduc- 
tions from this fact, and it is liable to be misleading. One might 
use a spatial metaphor and a tautology to make it seem less 
important; ‘the sound of words* does not enter that part of the 
mind where it is effective, except in so far as the words take effect 
as words.’ What this ‘taking effect’ may be like I shall try to 
discuss in my last chapter. 

It has been deduced from the belief in Pure Sound that the 
resultant meaning of the w6rds need not be known, that it is 
enough to know the meaning of the words in isolation and enough 
of their syntax to read them aloud rightly. In a degree this is 
often true, but it is better to regard this state of limited knowledge 
as a complicated state of indecision which involves much estimat- 
ing of probabilities, and is less ignorance than an ordered suspen- 
sion of judgment. Secondly, and more seriously, it has been 
deduced from this belief that you are liable to destroy the poem 
if its meaning is discovered, that it is important to preserve one’s 
innocence about the meaning of verses, that one must use sensi- 
bility, and as little intelligence as possible. This, also, is often 
true, but I take a moral line here, and say it is true only of bad 
poetry. People suspect analysis, often rightly, as the refuge of 
the emotionally sterile, but that is only to say that analysis is often 
done badly. In so far as such a destruction occurs because you 
have used your intelligence it must be accepted, and you may 
reasonably expect to become interested in another poem, so that 
the loss is not permanent, because that is the normal process of 
learning to appreciate poetry. 

As for the belief in Atmosphere, about which I shall now make 
some inadequate remarks, it may be viewed as a third deduction 
from the belief in Pure Sound. Critics often say or imply casu- 
ally that some poetic effect conveys a direct ‘physical’ quality, 
something mysteriously intimate, something which it is strange a 
poet could convey, something like a sensation which is not 
attached to any one of the senses. This may only be a statement 
of how they themselves applied their conscious attention when 
reading the poem ; thus a musical chord is a direct seifsation, but 
not therefore unanalysable into its separate notes even at the 
moment of sensing. It can be either felt or thought; the two 


things are similar but different; and it requires practice to do 
both at once. Or the statement might, one cannot deny, mean 
that there has been some confusion of the senses. But it may 
mean something more important, involving a distinction between 
‘ sensation ’ and ‘ feeling * ; that what the poet has conveyed is no 
assembly of grammatical meanings, capable of analysis, but a 
‘mood,’ an ‘atmosphere,’ a ‘personality,’ an attitude to life, an 
undifferentiated mode of being. 

Probably it is in this way, as a sort of taste in the head, that 
one remembers one’s own past experiences, including the experi- 
ence of reading a particular poet. Probably, again, this mode of 
apprehension is connected with the condition of the whole body, 
and is as near as one can get to an immediate self-knowledge. 
You may say, then, that any grammatical analysis of poetry, since 
it must ignore atmosphere, is trivial; that atmosphere is con- 
veyed in some unknown and fundamental way as a by-product of 
meaning; that analysis cannot hope to do anything but ignore it; 
and that criticism can only state that it is there. 

This belief may in part explain the badness of much nine- 
teenth-century poetry, and how it came to be written by critically 
sensitive people. They admired the poetry of previous genera- 
tions, very rightly, for the taste it left in the head, and, failing to 
realise that the process of putting such a taste into a reader’s head 
involves a great deal of work which does not feel like a taste in 
the head while it is being done, attempting, therefore, to conceive 
a taste in the head and put it straight on to their paper, they pro- 
duced tastes in the head which were in fact blurred, complacent, 
and unpleasing. But to say that the consequences of a critical 
formula have been unfortunate is not to say that it is untrue or 
even unusable; it is very necessary for a critic to remember 
about the atmosphere, chiefly because he must concentrate on the 
whole of the poem he is talking about rather than on the par- 
ticular things that he can find to say. 

In wishing to apply verbal analysis to poetry the position of the 
critic is like that of the scientist wishing to apply determinism to 
the world. may not be valid everywhere; though it be valid 
everywhere it may not explain everything; but in so far as he is 
to do any work he must assume it is valid where he is working, 
and will explain what he is trying to explain. I assume, therefore, 


that the ‘atmosphere* is the consciousness of what is implied by 
the meaning, and I believe that this assumption is profitable in 
many more cases than one would suppose. 

I shall try to recommend this opinion by giving what seems to 
me a striking example ; a case, that is, where an affective state 
is conveyed particularly vividly by devices of particular irrelev- 
ance. Macbeth, in these famous lines, may easily seem to be 
doing something physiological and odd, something outside the 
normal use of words. It is when he is spurring on his jaded 
hatred to the murder of Banquo and Fleance. 

Come, seeling Night, 

Skarfe up the tender Eye of pitiful Day 
And with thy bloddie and invisible Hand 
Cancel and teare to pieces that great Bond 
That keepes me pale. 

Light thickens, and the Crow 
Makes Wing to th* Rookie Wood. 

Good things of Day begin to droope, and drowse, 

While Night’s black Agents to their Prey’s doe rowse. 

Thou marvell’st at my words, but hold thee still ; 

Things bad begun, make strong themselves by ill : 

So prythee go with me. 

(ill. ii. 50.) 

The condition of his skin (By the pricking of my thumbs Some- 
thing wicked this way comes), the sense of being withdrawn far 
within his own flesh (like an old lecher, a small fire at his heart, 
all the rest on’s body cold), the sense that the affair is prosaic, it 
need not be mentioned, and yet an occasional squawking of the 
nerves (Hobbididance croaks in Tom’s belly), in short the whole 
frame of body, as I read the lines, is lit up and imposed upon the 
reader, from which Macbeth lashes his exhausted energies into a 
new, into the accustomed, readiness for murder. 

I have tried by these almost irrelevant quotations to show 
much work the reader of Shakespeare is prepared to do for him, 
how one is helped by the rest of his work to put a great deal into 
any part of it, but this seems to explain very little. Various 
similar sound effects or associations may be noted; there is a 
suggestion of witches’ broth, or curdling blood, abo\it thickens, 
which the vowel sound of light, coming next to it, with the move- 
ment of stirring treacle, and the cluck of the k-sounds, intensify; 


a suggestion, too, of harsh, limpid echo, and, under careful feet 
of poachers, an abrupt crackling of sticks. The vowel sounds at 
the end make an increasing darkness as the crow goes forward. 
But, after all, one would be very surprised if two people got the 
same result from putting a somid-effect into words in this way. 

It is safer to point out that rooks were, in any case, creatures of 
foreboding ; 

Augurs, and understood Relations, have 

By Magot-Pyes, and Choughes, and Rookes, brought forth 

The secret’st man of Blood ; 

(ill. iv. 125.) 

that Macbeth looked out of the window because Banquo was to 
be killed soon after dusk, so he wanted to know how the tim6 was 
going; and that a dramatic situation is always heightened by 
breaking off the dialogue to look out of the window, especially if 
some kind of Pathetic Fallacy is to be observed outside. But to 
notice this particular pathetic fallacy you must withdraw yourself 
from the apprehension of its effect, and be ready to notice irrelev- 
ant points which may act as a clue. I believe it is that the peaceful 
solitary crow^ moving towards bed and the other crows, is made 
unnaturally like Macbeth and a murderer who is coming against 
them; this is suggested by the next lines, which do not say 
whether the crow is one of the good things of day or one of nighfs 
black agents (it is, at any rate, black), by the eerie way that light 
itself is thickening, as a man turns against men, a crow against 
crows, perhaps by the portentous way a crow's voice will carry at 
such a time, and by the sharpness of its wings against the even 
glow of a sky after sundown; but mainly, I think, by the use of 
the two words rook and crow. 

Rooks live in a crowd and are mainly vegetarian; crow may be 
either another name for a rook, especially when seen alone, or it 
may mean the solitary Carrion crow. This subdued pun is made 
to imply here that Macbeth, looking out of the window, is trying 
to see himself as a murderer, and can only see himself as in the 
position of the that his rfajv of power, now, is closing ; that 

he has to distinguish himself from the other rooks by a difference 
of name, rook-crow, like the kingly title, only; that he is anxious, 
at bottom, to be at one with the other rooks, not to murder them; 
that he can no longer, or that he may yet, be united with the 


rookery; and that he is murdering Banquo in a forlorn attempt 
to obtain peace of mind.^ 

Interest in ‘ atmospheres’ is a critical attitude designed for, and 
particularly suited to, the poets of the nineteenth century; this 
may tell us something about theni, and in part explain why they 
are so little ambiguous in the sense with which I am concerned. 
For a variety of reasons, they found themselves living in an 
intellectual framework with which it was very difficult to write 
poetry, in which poetry was rather improper, or was irrelevant 
to business, especially the business of becoming Fit to Survive, 
or was an indulgence of one’s lower nature in beliefs the scientists 
knew were untrue. On the other hand, they had a large public 
which was as anxious to escape from this intellectual frameworK, 
on holiday, as they were themselves. Almost all of them, there- 
fore, exploited a sort of tap-root into the world of their childhood, 
where they were able to conceive things poetically, and whatever 
they might be writing about they would suck up from this limited 
and perverted world an unvarying sap which was their poetical 
inspiration. Mr. Harold Nicolson has written excellently about 
Swinburne’s fixation on to the excitements of his early reading 
and experience, and about the unique position in the life of 
Tennyson occupied by the moaning of cold wind round a child 
frightened for its identity upon the fens. Wordsworth frankly 
had no inspiration other than his use, when a boy, of the moun- 
tains as a totem or father-substitute, and Byron only at the end 
of his life, in the first cantos of Don Juan in particular, escaped 
from the infantile incest-fixation upon his sister which was till 
then all that he had got to say. As for Keats’s desire for death 
and his mother, it has become a byword among the learned. 
Shelley, perhaps, does not strike one as keeping so sharp a dis- 
tinction between the world he considered real and the world 
from which he wrote poetry, but this did not in his case improve 
either of them; while Browning and Meredith, who did write 
from the world they lived in, affect me as novel-writers of merit 
with no lyrical inspiration at all. Coleridge, it is true, relied on 

^ It was stupid of me to present this example as a sort of t^st case, with 
a tidy solution drawn from the names of birds. Obviously the passage is 
still impressive if you have no opinions at all about the difference between 
crows and rooks. But it is at least a good example of a heavy Atmosphere, 
and I don’t think my treatment of it was wrong as far as it went. 


opium rather than the nursery. But of all these men an imposed 
excitement, a sense of uncaused warmth, achievement, gratifica- 
tion, a sense of hugging to oneself a private dream-world, is the 
main interest and material.^ 

In that age, too, began the doubt as to whether this man or that 
was ‘grown-up,’ which has ever since occupied so deeply the 
minds of those interested in their friends. Macaulay complains 
somewhere that in his day a man was sure to be accused of a child- 
mind if no doubt could be cast ‘either on the ability of his in- 
telligence or the innocence of his character’ ; now nobody seems 
to have said this in the eighteenth century. Before the Romantic 
Revival the possibilities of not growing up had never been 
exploited so far as to become a subject for popular anxiety. 

Of course, these pat little theories are ridiculously simple; 
fantasy gratifications and a protective attitude towards one’s inner 
life are in some degree essential for the production of poetry, and 
I have no wish to pretend the Romantics were not great poets. 
But I think this will be admitted, that they were making a use of 
language very different from that of their predecessors ; imagine 
Shakespeare or Pope keeping a tap-root in this way. One might 
expect, then, that they would not need to use ambiguities of the 
kind I shall consider to give vivacity to their language, or even 
ambiguities with which the student of language, as such, is con- 
cerned; that the mode of approach to them should be psycho- 
logical rather than grammatical, and that their distortions of 
meaning will belong to darker regions of the mind. 

This introduction has grown too long and too portentous ; it 
is time I settled down to the little I can do in this chapter, which 
is to list a few examples of ambiguity of the first type. Many of 
the preceding paragraphs are designed merely for defence ; if it is 
said that the verbal analyst is a crude irrelevant fellow who should 
be thinking about the atmosphere, the reply is that though there 
may be an atmosphere to which analysis is irrelevant, it is not 
necessarily anything very respectable. 

I have already considered the comparison of two things which 
does not say in virtue of what they are to be compared. Of the 

^ Byron I understand did not meet his half-sister at all till he was grown 
up. It seems no good trying to improve this paragraph, and I still thiri that 
the last sentence summing it up is sufficiently true. 


same sort, though less common, is the ornamental use of false 
antithesis, which places words as if in opposition to one another 
without saying in virtue of what they are to be opposed. Cases 
in which several ways of opposing them are implied will be found 
in my later chapters as examples of more advanced ambiguity; 
but the device may be used to deny such an antithesis altogether. 
There is a rather trivial example of this in Peacock’s War Song: 

We there, in strife be wildring. 

Spilt blood enough to swim in ; 

We orphaned many children 
And widowed many women. 

The eagles and the ravens 
We glutted with our foemen; 

The heroes and the cravens, 

The spearmen and the bowmen. 

In the last two lines he is not concerned to be thinking, to decide 
something or convince somebody; he makes a cradle and rocks 
himself in it ; it is the tone of a man imagining himself in a mood 
wholly alien to him, and looking round with an amused com- 
placent absence of reflection. The lines also give finality in that 
the impulse is shown to be dying away; some reflection has been 
implied on the diflFerence between heroes and cravens^ on their 
equal deaths, and on the relations between eagles and heroes^ 
ravens and cravens, but the irrelevant calm of the last line says 
‘ these distinctions may be made at other times, but they are 
irrelevant to our slaughter and the reaction to it of Nature,’ he 
proceeds to another merely technical way of separating the dead 
into classes, and by the failure of the antithesis shows he is merely 
thinking of them as a huge pile. 

How loved, how honoured once, avails thee not. 

To whom related, or by whom begot; 

A heap of dust is all remains of thee ; 

’Tis all thou art, and all the proud shall be. 

(Pope, Unfortunate Lady,) 

The two parts of the second line make a claim to be alternatives 
which is not obviously justified, and this I think implies a good 
deal. If the antithesis is to be serious, or must mean ‘one of her 
relations was grand but her father was humble,’ or the other way 
about; thus one would take how to mean ‘whether much or 
little* (it could mean ‘though you were so greatly*), and the last 


line to contrast her with the proud, so as to imply that she is 
humble (it could unite her with the proud, and deduce the death 
of all of them from the death of one). This obscurity is part of 
the ‘ Gothic ’ atmosphere that Pope wanted : ‘ her birth was high, 
but there was a mysterious stain on it * ; or ‘ though you jnight not 
think it, her birth was high’; or ‘her birth was high, but not 
higher than births to which I am accustomed.’ Here, however, 
the false antithesis is finding another use, to convey the attitude 
of Pope to the subject. ‘How simple, how irrelevant to the 
merits of the unfortunate lady, are such relationships; everybody 
has had both a relation and a father; how little I can admire the 
arrogance of great families on this point; how little, too, the 
siiobbery of my reader, who is unlikely to belong to a great 
family; to how many people this subject would be extremely 
fruitful of antitheses ; how little fruitful of antitheses it seems to 
an independent soul like mine.’ What is important about such 
devices is that they leave it to the reader vaguely to invent some- 
thing, and make him leave it at the back of his mind. 

Not unlike the use of a comparison which does not say in virtue 
of what the two things are to be compared is the use of a com- 
parative adjective which does not say what its noun is to be com- 
pared with; since all adjectives are in a sense comparative, this 
source of ambiguity is a sufficiently general one. In particular, 
it is the chief source of euphuistic conceits and the paradoxes 
cultivated in the ’nineties, which give a noun two contradictory 
adjectives and leave it to the reader to see how the adjectives 
are used.^ Examples of this sort are too well known, and are 
generally thought too trivial, to be worth quoting. I shall give an 
example from one of Mr. Waley’s Chinese translations, to insist 
upon the profundity of feeling which such a device may enshrine. 

Swiftly the years, beyond recall. 

Solemn the stillness of this spring morning. 

The human mind has two main scales on which to measure time. 
The large one takes the length of a human life as its unit, so that 

' Such a trick has usually one meaning which is the answer of the puzzle, 
but while you are puzzling the words have possible alternative meanings, 
and even to those who see the answers at once the alternatives are in a way 
present as being denied. They may appear as the views of commonplace 
people, who are thereby snubbed ; but they can also make a real ambiguity 
when the denial is not felt to be complete. 


there is nothing to be done about life, it is of an animal dignity 
and simplicity, and must be regarded from a peaceable and fatal- 
istic point of view. The small one takes as its unit the conscious 
moment, and it is from this that you consider the neighbouring 
space, an activity of the will, delicacies of social tone, and your 
personality. The scales are so far apart as almost to give the 
effect of defining two dimensions; they do not come into contact 
because what is too large to be conceived by the one is still too 
small to be conceived by the other. Thus, taking the units as a 
century and the quarter of a second, their ratio is ten to the tenth 
and their mean is the standard working day ; or taking the smaller 
one as five minutes, their mean is the whole of summer. The 
repose and self-command given by the use of the first are cdh- 
trasted with the speed at which it shows the years to be passing 
from you, and therefore with the fear of death; the fever and 
multiplicity of life, as known by the use of the second, are 
contrasted with the calm of the external space of which it gives 
consciousness, with the absolute or extra-temporal value attached 
to the brief moments of self-knowledge with which it is concerned, 
and with a sense of security in that it makes death so far off. 

Both these time-scales and their contrasts are included by these 
two lines in a single act of apprehension, because of the words 
swift and still. Being contradictory as they stand, they demand 
to be conceived in different ways; we are enabled, therefore, to 
meet the open skies with an answering stability of self-knowledge ; 
to meet the brevity of human life with an ironical sense that it is 
morning and springtime, that there is a whole summer before 
winter, a whole day before night. 

I call swift and still here ambiguous, though each is meant to 
be referred to one particular time-scale, because between them 
they put two time-scales into the reader’s mind in a single act of 
apprehension. But these scales, being both present, are in some 
degree used for each adjective, so that the words are ambiguous 
in a more direct sense; the years of a man’s life seem szoift even 
on the small scale, like the mist from the mountains which 
‘gathers a moment, then scatters’; the morning seems still even 
on the large scale, so that this moment is apocalyptic and a type 
of heaven. 

Lacking rhyme, metre, and any overt device such as compari- 


son, these lines are what we should normally caU poetry only by 
virtue of their compactness ; two statements are made as if they 
were connected, and the reader is forced to consider their rela- 
tions for himself. The reason why these facts should have been 
selected for a poem is left for him to invent; he will invent a 
variety of reasons and order them in his own mind. This, I 
think, is the essential fact about the poetical use of language. 

Among metaphors effective from several points of view one 
may include, by no great extension, those metaphors which are 
partly recognised as such and partly received simply as words in 
their acquired sense. All languages are composed of dead meta- 
phors as the soil of corpses, but English is perhaps uniquely full 
01 metaphors of this sort, which are not dead but sleeping, and, 
while making a direct statement, colour it with an implied com- 
parison. The school rule against mixed metaphor, which in 
itself is so powerful a weapon, is largely necessary because of the 
presence of these sleepers, who must be treated with respect; 
they are harder to use than either plain word or metaphor 
because if you mix them you must show you are conscious of 
their meaning, and are not merely being insensitive to the possi- 
bilities of the language. 

Beauty is but a flower 

Which wrinkles will devour. 

Brightness falls from the air. 

Queens have died young and fair. 

Dust hath closed Helen’s eye. 

I am sick, I must die. 

Lord, have mercy upon us. 

(Nash, Summer's Last Will and Testament.) 

I call it a subdued metaphor here that devour should mean 
‘remove’ or ‘replace,’ with no more than an overtone of cruelty 
and the unnatural. This may seem very different from the less 
evident subdued metaphor in the derivation of a word like 
‘apprehension,’ say, but a reader may ignore the consequences 
even of so evident a metaphor as devour. If you go into the 
metaphor it may make Time the edax rerum^ and wrinkles only 
time’s tocth-marks; more probably it compares long curving 
wrinkles on the face to rodent ulcers, caterpillars on petals, and 
the worms that are to gnaw it in the grave. Of these, the cater- 


pillar (from flower) are what the comparison insists upon, but the 
Elizabethan imagination would let slip no chance of airing its 
miraculous corpse-worm. 

On the other hand 

Brightness falls from the air 

is an example of ambiguity by vagueness, such as was used to 
excess by the Pre-Raphaelites. Evidently there are a variety of 
things the line may be about. The sun and moon pass under the 
earth after their period of shining, and there are stars falling at 
odd times ; Icarus and the prey of hawks, having soared upwards 
towards heaven, fall exhausted or dead ; the glittering turning 
things the sixteenth century put on the top of a building mky 
have fallen too often. In another sense, hawks, lightning, and 
meteorites fall flashing from heaven upon their prey. Taking 
brightness as abstract, not as meaning something bright, it is as a 
benefit that light falls^ diffusely reflected, from the sky. In so 
far as the sky is brighter than the earth (especially at twilight), 
brightness is natural to it; in so far as the earth may be bright 
when the clouds are dark, brightness falls from the sky to the earth 
when there is a threat of thunder. ‘All is unsafe, even the 
heavens are not sure of their brightness,’ or ‘the qualities in man 
that deserve respect are not natural to him but brief gifts from 
God; they fall like manna, and melt as soon.’ One may extract, 
too, from the oppression in the notion of thunder the idea that 
now, ‘in time of pestilence,’ the generosity of Nature is mysteri- 
ously interrupted; even at the scene of brilliant ecclesiastical 
festivity for which the poem was written there is a taint of dark- 
ness in the very air. 

It is proper to mention a rather cynical theory that Nash wrote 
or meant ‘hair’; still, though less imaginative, this is very 
adequate; oddly enough (it is electricity and the mysterious 
vitality of youth which have fallen from the hair) carries much the 
same suggestion as the other version; and gives the relief of a 
single direct meaning. Elizabethan pronunciation was very little 
troubled by snobbery, and it is conceivable that Nash meant both 
words to take effect in some way. Now that all this fuss has been 
made about aitches it is impossible to imagine what such a line 
would sound like. 


For a final meaning of this line one must consider the line 
which follows it; there is another case of poetry by juxtaposition. 

Dust hath closed Helen’s eye 

one must think of Helen in part as an undecaying corpse or a 
statue; it is dust from outside which settles on her eyelids, and 
shows that it is long since they have been opened; only in the 
background, as a truth which could not otherwise be faced, is it 
suggesced that the dust is generated from her own corruption. 
As a result of this ambiguity, the line imposes on brightness a 
further and more terrible comparison; on the one hand, it is the 
bright motes dancing in sunbeams, which fall and become dust 
which is dirty and infectious ; on the other, the lightness, gaiety, 
and activity of humanity, which shall come to dust in the grave. 

When a word is selected, as a ‘vivid detail,’ as particular for 
general, a reader may suspect alternative reasons why it has been 
selected; indeed the author might find it hard to say. When 
there are several such words there may be alternative ways of 
viewing them in order of importance. 

Pan is our All, by him we breathe, we live. 

We move, we are ; . . . 

But when he frowns, the sheep, alas. 

The shepherds wither, and the grass. 

(Ben Jonson, Pan^s Anniversary 

AlaSy the word explaining which of the items in this list we are to 
take most seriously, belongs to the sheep by proximity and the 
break in the line, to the grass by rhyming with it, and to the 
shepherds y humble though they may be, by the processes of human 
judgment; so that all three are given due attention, and the 
balance of the verse is maintained. The Biblical suggestions of 
grass as symbolic of the life of man (‘ in the mornings it is green 
and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, dried up, and 
withered’) add to the solemnity; or from another point of view 
make the passage absurdly blasphemous, because Pan here is 
James I. The grace, the pathos, the ‘sheer song’ of the couplet 
is given by an enforced subtlety of intonation, from the difficulty 
of saying it so as to bring out all the implications. 

This last consideration is important, because it gives some hint 
as to why these devices belong to poetry rather than to prose, or 


indeed why poetry seems different from prose. A metrical 
scheme imposes a sort of intensity of interpretation upon the 
grammar, which makes it fruitful even when there is no ‘song.’ 

I want to know a butcher paints, 

A baker rhymes for his pursuit, 

Candlestick-maker, much acquaints 
His soul with song, or, haply mute. 

Blows out his brains upon the flute. (Browning.) 

‘ I want to know that the whole class of butchers paints,’ or ‘ I 
want to know that some one butcher paints,’ or ‘ I want to know 
personally a butcher who paints’; any of these may be taken as 
the meaning, and their resultant is something like, ‘I want to 
know that a member of the class of butchers is moderately likely 
to be a man who paints, or at any rate that he can do so if he 
wishes.’ The demands of metre allow the poet to say something 
which is not normal colloquial English, so that the reader thinks 
of the various colloquial forms which are near to it, and puts 
them together; weighting their probabilities in proportion to 
their nearness. It is for such reasons as this that poetry can be 
more compact, while seeming to be less precise, than prose. 

It is for these reasons, too, among others, that an insensitivity 
in a poet to the contemporary style of speaking, into which he has 
been trained to concentrate his powers of apprehension, is so 
disastrous, can be noticed so quickly, and produces that curious 
thinness or blurring of texture one finds in William Morris. And 
that is why the practice of putting single words into italics for 
emphasis (again the Victorians are guilty) is so vulgar; a well- 
constructed sentence should be able to carry a stress on any of its 
words and should show in itself how these stresses are to be 
compounded. Both in prose and poetry, it is the impression that 
implications of this sort have been handled with more judgment 
than you yourself realise, that with this language as text innumer- 
able further meanings, which you do not know, could be deduced, 
that forces you to feel respect for a style. 

Also I have considered the ‘implications’ of sentences so far 
mainly as what they take for granted, as what must already be in 
mind if they are to be suitable. The stock example of this is, 
‘Have you stopped beating your wife.?’, which claims to know 
already that it has been your habit to do so. A complementary 


sort of implication may be defined : what must not be in mind if 
the sentence is to be suitable, what it leaves vague, or is not 
thinking about, or does not feel. The negative here assumes you 
might expect this particular thing to be in mind, because other- 
wise you would not have thought of it as an implication. You 
might think it lessened the importance of a negative implication 
that one is only conscious of it if its assumption is unjustified; 
but the mind is a destroyer; any assumption may chance to be 
questioned ; and most people are conscious that they, therefore, 
can to some extent impose what they assume. In speaking of 
‘implications’ one thinks as much of negative as of positive ones, 
indeed it would often be difficult to make the distinction. One 
would notice, to discover a negative implication, the degree to 
which stock phrases were used which did not fit the situation very 
closely, as if it did not need to be, or could not safely be, defined 
further, or the degree to which a form of words had been selected 
which only said so much and no more. For such reasons as these, 
private letters often seem most exquisitely adapted to their setting 
when written most casually; it is exactly the extent to which 
their language is careless, the proportion of carelessness they give 
to the different matters in hand, which is so precise. Similarly 
in conversation this more refined sort of implication is very highly 
developed. It is comparable to the use of facial muscles, in- 
tended for different or immensely cruder uses (such as the 
muscles round the eyes designed to prevent them from being 
gorged with blood when you scream), to convey fine shades of 
‘ expression.’ They are comparable, again, in that there are fewer 
verbal devices, as there are fewer ways of moving facial muscles, 
than there are sorts of feeling to convey by them ; this gives an 
inherent opportunity for ambiguity which is regularly exploited. 
The cult of careless ease in literature, where one is less sure of the 
audience, is more treacherous, but its advantages and dangers 
are of the same kind. 

It is because of the wealth of implication which must be carried 
by sentences in poetry, because they must start from scratch and 
put the reader in possession of the entire attitude they assume, 
that the notion of ‘ sincerity ’ is important, and that it is so hard to 
imitate a style. A poem can be cross-questioned, and one must 
know, to feel sure that it will survive the process with undim- 


inished reputation, that for a wide variety of possible assumptions 
in the reader the assumptions of the writer will seem reasonable 
enough to be adopted; and further that, for a hierarchy of 
degrees of care in the reader, the assumptions discovered in the 
writer will not show themselves to be self-conflicting in a way 
which to such a reader will seem absurd. 

The reason, then, that ambiguity is more elaborate in poetry 
than in prose, other than the fact that the reader is trained to 
expect it, seems to be that the presence of metre and rhyme, 
admittedly irrelevant to the straightforward process of conveying 
a statement, makes it seem sensible to diverge from the colloquial 
order of statement, and so imply several colloquial orders from 
which the statement has diverged. But rhythm is a powertul 
weapon in itself, which needs to be considered separately; I 
have discussed negative implications here by way of a sidelong 
approach to it. 

Rhythm allows one, by playing off the possible prose rhythms 
against the super-imposed verse rhythms, to combine a variety of 
statements in one order. Its direct effect seems a matter for 
physiology ; in particular, a rhythmic beat taken faster than the 
pulse seems controllable, exhilarating, and not to demand in- 
timate sympathy ; a rhythmic beat almost synchronous with the 
pulse seems sincere and to demand intimate sympathy; while a 
rhythmic beat slower than the pulse, like a funeral bell, seems 
portentous and uncontrollable. But even if it is a simple rhythm 
which is apprehended, rather than something much more com- 
plex which involves the meaning, still it is the meaning which 
must show at what pace the verse is to be read. And, of course, 
it is not one rhythmical beat, like a bell tolling, which is appre- 
hended ; or if it is (since the ear insists on imposing rhythms, and 
cocaine can make one stroke into a series), then the word should 
be used in the plural ; the foot, the grammatical clause, the line, 
the sentence, the stanza or paragraph, and the whole canto or 
subject-heading, are all rhythmical units; the total rhythmical 
line which results from them must be regarded as of an immense 
complexity entirely defined by the meaning; and even then it is 
the meaning which must imply how it is to be interpreted. So 
that rhythm is chiefly useful as a means of insisting upon, and 
then limiting, the possible implications ; and though I may seem 


to be ignoring the rhythm through most of this book, I shall 
always be using it, so to speak, among the calculations on the 
margin, as a means of understanding the grammar. 

However, one can oppose the use of rhythm to the use of 
ambiguity, because an interest in rhythm makes a poet long- 
winded, and ambiguity is a phenomenon of compression. Thus 
it is seldom that one finds relevant ambiguities in Spenser or 
Marlowe, because their method is by a variety of means to sustain 
a poetic effect for so long that the poetic knot can be spread out 
at length, and one does not see that the separate uses of a word 
would be a pun if they were drawn together. When Marlowe 
brings off his triumphs of simplicity and the delight in rhythm it 
is often a matter of separating the implications of a sentence and 
using them at different times. 

Meander. Your majesty shall shortly have your wish 
And ride in triumph through Persepolis. 

(Exeunt all except Tamburlane and his followers.) 

Tamburlane. And ride in triumph through Persepolis. 

Is it not brave to be a king, Techelles, 

Usumcasane and Theridamas, 

Is it not passing brave to be a king, 

And ride in triumph through Persepolis ? 

Tamburlane can only use the same words again and again, 
because his mind is glutted with astonishment at them; Mar- 
lowe’s idea of the heroic soul has extreme simplicity and un- 
bounded appetite, so that after however great an expression of his 
desire for glory, after one subordinate clause has opened out of 
another, with unalterable energy, it can still roar at the close with 
the same directness as in its opening line. Thus the lack of 
variety in his rhythm is in itself a device of some rhythmical 
subtlety. It is for this sort of reason that the same line is repeated 
here in three tones, of obsequiousness, of astonishment, and of 
triumph, which Shakespeare could have included in a single line. 

Faustus, these books, thy wit, and our experience, 

Shall make all nations to canonise us. 

As Indian Moors obey their Spanish lords 
So shall the spirits of every element 
Be alway'' serviceable to us three ; 

Like lions shall they guard us when we please, 

Like Almain rutters, with their horsemen’s staves, 


Or Lapland giants, trotting by oilr sides; 

Sometimes like women, or un wedded maids. 

Shadowing more beauty in their airy brows 
Than have the white breasts of the Queen of Love : 

From Venice shall they drag huge argosies, 

And from America the golden fleece 
That yearly stuffs old Philip's treasury; 

If learned Faustus will be resolute. 

At first sight the last line is an afterthought expressing anxiety, 
but when immersed in the style one accepts it as a part of the 
sentence always intended, that might have been put in between 
the second line and the third. That a conditional clause should 
have been held back through all these successive lightnings pf 
poetry, that after their achievement it should still be present with 
the same conviction and resolution^ is itself a statement of heroic 
character. One’s total impression of the character of Valdes is 
obtained by combining these two interpretations. Where so 
much can be said by the mere order of single mighty lines there 
is no need for much subtlety of implication within them. 

I am considering here such ambiguities of rhythm as act with- 
out implying an ambiguity of grammar, or noticeable ambiguity 
in the use of words. This last example in result belongs to a later 
chapter, because it implies two different opinions of Valdes and 
leaves them to be reconciled; so does the following example, 
because it implies two different sentiments in the author. I put 
them here for the slightness of the machinery; it is a machinery 
continually used for ambiguities of the first type, and these 
examples may be prominent enough to show that it is powerful. 

Aye, look, high heaven and earth ail from their prime foundation. 

All thoughts to rive the heart are there, and all are vain; 

Horror and scorn and hate and fear and indignation ; 

Oh why did I awake, when shall I sleep again ? 

(A. E. Housman, Last Poems) 

The main rhythm of the third line (the crest of the wave) takes 
hate as its chief stress, and the first three nouns as a group to- 
gether. Fear gives the second emphasis, allowed by the extra 
foot, fear and indignation act as a unit balancing the first three, 
and by attraction the fear meant is seen to be of a dignified kind. 
But behind the energy and determination of this treatment of the 


line as a unit, there is a rocking, broken, agitated, and impotent 
grouping, which takes the first four nouns as two pairs, associates 
fear with hate so as to make it weak and snarling, and throws in 
indignation as an isolated and squeaking disapproval. 

I have mentioned Spenser, whom no discussion of rhythm can 
ignore. To show the scale of his rhythm, it may be enough to 
list some of the ways in which he gave movement to the stanza 
of the Faerie Queene\ it is by the delicacy of this movement that 
he shows his attitude towards his sentences, rather than by 
devices of implication in the sentences themselves. At the same 
time, once such an attitude has been fixed, it is more easily de- 
scribed in terms of the meaning of the words than in terms of the 
meaning of the rhythm; in the next example, from Sidney, I 
shall use this other mode of approach. 

Spenser concentrates the reader's attention on to the move- 
ment of his stanza : by the use of archaic words and construc- 
tions, so that one is at a safe distance from the exercise of an 
immediate judgment, by the steady untroubled flow of similar 
lines, by making no rapid change of sense or feeling, by sustained 
alliteration, parallel adjectives, and full statement of the acces- 
sories pf a thought, and by the dreamy repetition of the great 
stanza perpetually pausing at its close. Ababbcbcc is a unit which 
may be broken up into a variety of metrical forms, and the ways 
in which it is successively broken up are fitted into enormous 
patterns. The first quatrain usually gratifies the ear directly and 
without surprise, and the stanzas may then be classified by the 
grammatical connections of the crucial fifth line, which must give 
a soft bump to the dying fall of the first quatrain, keep it in the 
air, and prevent it from falling apart from the rest of the stanza. 

It may complete the sense of the quatrain, for instance, with a 
couplet, and the stanza will then begin with a larger, more narra- 
tive unit, ababb, and wander garrulously down a perspective to 
the alexandrine. Or it may add to the quatrain as by an after- 
thought, as if with a childish earnestness it made sure of its point 
without regard to the metre, and one is relieved to find that the 
metre recovers itself after all. For more energetic or serious 
statements it will start a new quatrain at the fifth line, with a new 
sentence; there are then two smaller and tighter, repeatedly 
didactic, or logically opposed, historically or advancing, units, 


whose common ^hyme serves to insist upon their contrast, which 
are summed up and reconciled in the final solemnity of the alex- 
andrine. In times of excitement the fifth line will be connected 
both ways, so as to ignore the two quatrains, and, by flowing 
straight on down the stanza with an insistence on its unity, show 
the accumulated energy of some enormous climax; and again, 
by being connected with neither, it will make the stanza into an 
unstressed conversational device without overtones of rhythm, 
picking up stray threads of the story with almost the relief of 
prose. It would be interesting to take one of the vast famous 
passages of the work and show how these devices are fitted to- 
gether into larger units of rhythm, but having said that every use 
of the stanza includes all these uses in the reader’s apprehension 
of it I may have said enough to show the sort of methods Spenser 
had under his control ; why it was not necessary for him to con- 
centrate on the lightning flashes of ambiguity. 

The size, the possible variety, and the fixity of this unit give 
something of the blankness that comes from fixing your eyes on 
a bright spot; you have to yield yourself to it very completely to 
take in the variety of its movement, and, at the same time, there 
is no need to concentrate the elements of the situation into a judg- 
ment as if for action. As a result of this, when there are ambigui- 
ties of idea, it is whole civilisations rather than details of the 
moment which are their elements; he can pour into the even 
dreamwork of his fairyland Christian, classical, and chivalrous 
materials with an air, not of ignoring their differences, but of 
holding all their systems of values floating as if at a distance, so 
as not to interfere with one another, in the prolonged and diffused 
energies of his mind. 

Nowhere in English literature can this use of diffuseness as an 
alternative to, or peculiar branch of, ambiguity be seen more 
clearly than in those lovely sestines of Sidney, which are so 
curiously foreign to the normal modes or later developments of 
the language. This time I must do some serious quotation. 

Strephon. Klaius. 

Strephon. You Gote-heard Gods, that love the grassie mountaines, 
You nimphes that haunt the springs in pleasant vallies. 

You Satyrs joyd with free and quiet forrests. 

Vouchsafe your silent eares to playning musique. 

Which to my woes gives still an early mornii^ : 

And draws the dolor on till wery evening. 

Klaius. O Mercurie, foregoer to the evening, 

O heavenlie huntresse of the savage mountaines, 

0 lovelie starre, entitled of the morning, 

While that my voice doth fill the woeful vallies 
Vouchsafe your silent eares to playning musique. 

Which oft hath Echo tir’d in secrete forrests. 

Strephon. I that was once free-burgess of the forrests 
Where shade from Sunne, and sports I sought at evening, 

1 that was once esteemed for pleasant musique, 

Am banisht now amongst the monstrous mountaines 
Of huge despaire, and foul afflictions vallies. 

Am growne a skrich-owle to myself each morning. 

Klaius. I that was once delighted every morning. 

Hunting the wild inhabiters of forrests, 

I that was once the musique of these vallies, 

So darkened am, that all my day is evening, 

Hart-broken so, that mole-hills seem high mountaines. 

And fill the vales with cries in stead of musique. 

Strephon. Long since alas, my deadly Swannish musique 
Hath made itself a crier of the morning. 

And hath with wailing strength climbed highest mountaines 
Long since my thoughts more desert be than forrests : 

Long since I see my joyes come to their evening, 

And state thro wen down to over-troden vallies. 

Klaius. Long since the happie dwellers of these vallies. 

Have praide me leave my strange exclaiming musique, 
Which troubles their dayes worke, and joyes of evening: 
Long since I hate the night, more hate the morning: 

Long since my thoughts chase me like beasts in forrests, 
And make me wish myself laid under mountaines. 

Strephon. Me seemes I see the high and stately mountaines, 
Transforme themselves to lowe dejected vallies: 

Me seemes I heare in these ill-changed forrests, 

The nightingales doo learne of Owles their musique : 

Me seemes I feele the comfort of the morning 
Turnde to the mortal serene of an evening. 

Klaius. Mf^ seemes I see a filthie cloudie evening. 

As soone as Sunne begins to climbe the mountaines : 

Me seemes I feel a noisome scent, the morning 


When I do si^ell the flowers of these vallies : 

Me seemes I heare, when I doo heare sweet musique, 

The dreadful cries of murdered men in forrests. 

Strephon. I wish to fire the trees of all these forrests; 

I give the Sunne a last farewell each evening ; 

I curse the fiddling finders out of musique : 

With envy doo I hate the lofty mountaines ; 

And with despite despise the humble vallies: 

I doo detest night evening, day, and morning. 

Klaius. Curse to myself my prayer is, the morning: 

My fire is more, than can be made with forrests; 

My state more base, than are the basest vallies : 

I wish no evenings more to see, each evening; 

Shamed I have myself in sight of mountaines, 

And stoppe mine eares, lest I go mad with musique. 

Strephon. For she, whose parts maintained a perfect musique, 
Whose beauty shin’de more than the blushing morning. 

Who much did pass in state the stately mountaines, 

In straightness past the Cedars of the forrests, 

Hath cast me wretch into eternal evening. 

By taking her two Sunnes from these dark vallies. 

Klaius. For she, to whom compared, the Alps are vallies. 

She, whose lest word brings from the spheares their musique 
At whose approach the Sunne rose in the evening, 

Who, where she went, bare in her forehead morning, 

Is gone, is gone from these our spoiled forrests. 

Turning to deserts our best pastur’de mountaines. 

Strephon. These mountaines witness shall, so shall these vallies, 
Klaius. These forrests eke, made wretched by our musique, 
Strephon. Our morning hymn is this, 

Klaius. and song at evening. 

(Sidney, Arcadia) 

The poem beats, however rich its orchestration, with a wailing 
and immovable monotony, for ever upon the same doors in vain. 
Mountaines^ vallies, forrests \ musique, evening, morning', it is at 
these words only that Klaius and Strephon pause in their cries; 
these words circumscribe their world; these are the bones of 
their situation; and in tracing their lovelorn pastoAl tedium 
through thirteen repetitions, with something of the aimless multi- 
tudinousness of the sea on a rock, we seem to extract all the 


meaning possible from these notions; we are At last, therefore, 
in possession of all that might have been implied by them (if we 
had understood them) in a single sentence ; of all, in fact, that is 
implied by them, in the last sentence of the poem. I must glance, 
to show this, at the twelve other occasions on which each word 
is used. 

Mountaines are haunts of Pan for lust and Diana for chastity, 
to both of these the lovers appeal; they suggest being shut in, or 
banishment; impossibility and impotence, or difficulty and 
achievement; greatness that may be envied or may be felt as your 
own (so as to make you feel helpless, or feel powerful) ; they give 
you the peace, or the despair, of the grave ; they are the distant 
things behind which the sun rises and sets, the too near things 
which shut in your valley; deserted wastes, and the ample 
pastures to which you drive up the cattle for the summer. 
Vallies hold nymphs to which you may appeal, and yet are the 
normal places where you live; are your whole world, and yet 
limited so that your voice can affect the whole of them; are 
opposed to mountaines, either as places of shelter and comfort, or 
as places of humility and affliction; are rich with flowers and 
warmth, or are dark hollows between the hills. 

Forests, though valuable and accustomed, are desolate and hold 
danger; there are both nightingales and owls in them; their 
beasts, though savage, give the strong pleasures of hunting; their 
burning is either useful or destructive ; though wild and sterile 
they give freedom for contemplation, and their trunks are symbols 
of pride. 

Music may express joy or sorrow; is at once more and less direct 
than talking, and so is connected with one’s permanent feeling 
about the characters of pastoral that they are at once very rustic 
and rather over-civilised; it may please or distress the by- 
standers; and while belonging to despair and to the deaths of 
swans, it may share the living beauty of the lady, and be an 
inmate of the celestial spheres. 

Morning brings hope, light and labour, evening rest, play and 
despair; they are the variety of Nature, or the tedious repetition 
of a day their patrons Venus, whom one dare not name, and 
Mercury, who will bring no news of her. Morning, too, has often 
attached to it a meaning which, by an intelligent and illuminating 


misprint, is insirted upon in the eleventh (and subsequent) 
editions ; 

At whose approach the sun rose in the evening, 

Who where she went bore in her forehead mournings 
Is gone, is gone, from these our spoiled forrests, 

Turning to deserts our best pastor' d mountaines. 

The form takes its effect by concentrating on these words and 
slowly building up our interest in them ; all their latent implica- 
tions are brought out by the repetitions ; and each in turn is used 
to build up some simple conceit. So that when the static concep- 
tion of the complaint has been finally brought into light (I do not 
mean by this to depreciate the sustained magnificence of il;s 
crescendo, but to praise the singleness of its idea), a whole 
succession of feelings about the local scenery, the whole way in 
which it is taken for granted, has been enlisted into sorrow and 
beats as a single passion of the mind. 

I have put this poem at the end of a discussion ostensibly about 
rhythm, and shall mention its rhythm only to remark that it is 
magnificent; my point is that one can best illustrate its rhythm 
by showing the cumulative way it uses its words. It is seldom 
that the meaning of a poet’s words is built up so flatly and steadily 
in the course of using them. And limited as this form may be, 
the capacity to accept a limitation so unflinchingly, the capacity 
even to conceive so large a form as a unit of sustained feeling, is 
one that has been lost since that age. 

Annex on Dramatic Irony 

‘Effective in several ways’ includes dramatic irony; I shall 
close this chapter with some remarks about that. An example 
from Macbeth has already been considered (p. i8), which imposed 
the pathetic fallacy on the reader by means of an ambiguity, and 
tricked him into an irrational or primitive mode of thought under 
colour of talking about the view. This is an important device, 
about which it is proper to elaborate the obvious; I shall con- 
sider an example from the Synge Deirdre of the Sorrows, 

Deirdre, we have been told, is uniquely beautiful; she is 
being brought up alone in the woods to be old Conchubor’s 
queen; troubles have been foretold; she is wilful; she has seen 


Naisi in the woods ; she prefers him to Conchubor. Conchubor 
visits her, says he will marry her in three days, and leaves her to 
return to his capital. She asks her nurse, who could help her 
against him, would the nurse herself, no, would this great man 
or that, possibly, more possibly, would Naisi, and there is a 
storm of denial : 

Lavarcham. In the end of all there is none can go against 
Conchubor, and it’s folly that we’re talking, for if any went against 
Conchubor it’s sorrows he’d earn and the shortening of his day 
of life. 

{She turns away^ and Deirdre stands up stiff zvith excitement 
and goes and looks out of the window.) 

Deirdre. Are the stepping-stones flooding, Lavarcham? Will 
the night be stormy in the hills ? 

Lavarcham. The stepping-stones are flooding, surely, and the 
night will be the worst. I’m thinking, we’ve seen these years gone by. 

Upon these words Deirdre ‘tears upon the press and pulls out 
clothes and tapestries,’ robes herself as a queen, and prepares for 
the coming of the young princes. 

This storm is dramatically effective for various reasons. As 
part of the plot it makes Naisi and his brothers come for shelter 
when she is wanting them ; on the classical tragic model it makes 
the day of the action an unusual one, a day on which it seems 
fitting that great things should happen, and gives a sort of unity 
to the place by making it difficult to get there. Further, we are 
in doubt as to the position of Conchubor, and this allows of 
several implications. If we are to conceive that he has got across 
the stepping-stones already, then their flooding means that 
Deirdre’s way of safety, to Conchubor and his palace and the life 
which is expected of her, has been cut off; that it is high time she 
behaved like the stepping-stones and isolated herself with Naisi ; 
that what in the story is done heroically by her own choice is, in 
dumb show, either as an encouragement or as an ironical state- 
ment of the impotence of heroic action, done by the weather; 
and that all these troubles which she is bringing on herself have 
been foretold and are beyond her control. If we are to conceive 
that Condiubor has not yet got across the stepping-stones, she 
is in danger ot^being condemned to his company if he turns back, 
as, in fact, she is in any case, since he will marry her in three days ; 


it is against a fa^al and frankly alien heaven that she exerts her 
courage and her royalty; the weather is now one of the inevitable 
forces against which she is revolting, and is that one of those 
forces which makes it urgent she should revolt now. If we are to 
conceive that Conchubor is just getting across the stepping- 
stones, the weather is her ally, and there is some encouragement 
for revolt in the thought that he may be drowned. 

For the storm to mean so much it must receive particular atten- 
tion, and it is assured of this by marking a change in the tone of 
the conversation. The preceding series of questions has received 
the wrong answer at its climax; Naisi is the man who can help 
her, and her nurse says he can not. Since energy has accumul- 
ated towards this question, and is now dammed by the negative, 
it bursts out of the window into a larger world, and since we find 
there, instead of the indifference of external Nature, instead of 
the calm of accepting the statement that there is no hope, a larger 
release of energy and the crescendo repeated in the heavens, we 
compare the storm with the plot and are surprised into a Pathetic 
P'allacy. It is not that Nature is with her or against her, is her 
fate or her servant; the Fallacy here claims more generally that 
Nature, like the spectators, is excited into a variety of sympathies, 
and is all these four together. The operation is thus a complicated 
one, but it is normal, of course, to the crudest forms of melo- 
drama. My point is that, for a Pathetic Fallacy to cause much 
emotional reverberation, it must be imposed upon the reader by 
an ambiguity. 

Since the storm has been fixed, by all these devices, firmly in 
the spectator’s memory, a slight reference at the other end of the 
tragedy can call it back to give another dramatic irony. Naisi has 
been killed and Conchubor left in possession. 

Deirdre. Do not raise a hand to touch me. 

Conchubor. There are other hands to touch you. My fighters 
are set in among the trees. 

Deirdre. Who’ll fight the grave, Conchubor, and it opened on 
a dark night ? 

The night is dark enough now, and, of course, her main meaning 
is that she can’t be fought after she has killed herself.^ But she 
herself could not fight against the impulses of thV night at the 
beginning of the play, when she ran off with Naisi and opened the 


graves which are only now being filled ; nor against the weariness 
which is the turning-point of the action, that sense that happiness 
could not last for ever which drove them back to Ireland and 
their enemy. This third dark night in a sense covers the other 
two; we are made, therefore, to feel that the unity of .time, in 
spite of the lovers’ seven years of happiness, has somehow been 
preserved. The grave^ partly in consequence of this, is not that 
of Deirdre only, against which Conchubor czmiot fight \ she is 
fiopeless because she herself cannot fight against the grave in 
which Naisi is lying; and there is thus a further dramatic irony 
of the heroic action that defeats itself, in that it is Conchubor, as 
well as Deirdre, who opened 2i grave, whether for her or for Naisi, 
by' his actions on either dark night \ that Conchubor, no more 
than Deirdre, can fight either of them ; that after the way Con- 
chubor has killed Naisi, Deirdre cannot live to endure Conchubor 
and Conchubor cannot hold Deirdre from her grave. Lastly, 
there is a threat from Deirdre against Conchubor, making the 
grave his as well as theirs; her choice of death, or the forces he 
has himself loosed against her, will kill him ; as indeed he is led 
from the stage suddenly old and aimless and ‘ hard set to see the 
way before him.’ The grave having been spread on to three 
persons now takes effect as a generalisation, and names the mor- 
tality of all the protagonists, incidental soldiers included; ‘all 
life is strangely frustrated, all efforts incalculable and in vain ; we 
are all feeble beside the forces given to us and in the face of death 
all parties are on the same side.’ 

This implication, by the way, that all the characters are people 
subject to the same situation, that they all understand, though 
they may not take, the same attitude, is important to some types 
of play and often gets called their ‘ meaning.’ However, it is less 
insisted upon than dramatic irony by critics because (being a less 
conscious form of that device) it does not need to be noticed to be 
appreciated, and, therefore, is at once a less likely and a less useful 
thing for them to notice. For the rather limited and doctrinaire 
pessimism exploited by Synge it is a powerful weapon ; consider 
this piece of dialogue, when the lovers are wondering whether to 
go back to Ireland, where they will find death and their proper 
social position : 

Naisi. If our time in this place is ended, come away without 


Ainnle and Ardan to the woods of the east, for it’s right to be away 
from all people when two lovers have their love only. Come away 
and we’ll be safe always. 

Deirdre. There’s no safe place, Naisi, on the ridge of the 
world. . . . And it’s in the quiet woods I’ve seen them digging our 
grave, and throwing out the clay on leaves are bright and withered. 

Naisi. Come away, Deirdre, and it’s little we’ll think of safety 
or the grave beyond it, and we resting in a little corner between the 
daytime and the long night. 

Deirdre. It’s this hour we’re between the daytime and a night 
where there is sleep for ever, and isn’t it a better thing to be follow- 
ing on to a near death, than to be bending the head down, and 
dragging with the feet, and seeing one day a blight showing on love 
where it is sweet and tender ? 

These may seem absurdly simple phrases for Deirdre to twist 
into her more gloomy meaning, but it was Naisi who first sug- 
gested the idea from which he is now trying to reassure her; it is 
because at the back of his mind he agrees with her that upon all 
phrases of comfort he can give her there lies the same shadow of 
the grave. You would not find this effect so naked, so much in 
command of the situation, in the Elizabethan playwrights, be- 
cause there the forces that hold characters apart have got more 
kick in them; the device is always at work, I think, but the 
strongest example I know in Shakespeare comes from that one of 
his plays which has least variety of conception, which has most 
of this self-centred anxiety to maintain a single mood. 

Sic. He’s a Disease that must be cut away. 

Men. Oh, he’s a limb, that has but a Disease. 

Mortall, to cut it off; to cure it, easye. ... [It would be shameful 
ingratitude, he goes on, if they were to kill such a hero.] 

Bru. . . . when he did love his country, 

It honour’d him. 

Men. The service of the foote 

Being once gangren’d, is not then respected 
For what before it was. 

Bru. Wee’ll hear no more : 

Pursue him to his house, and pluck him thence. 

Lest his infection, being of catching nature. 

Spread further. , 

Men. One word more, one word: ^ 

This Tiger-footed rage, when it shall find 
The harme of unskann'd swiftnesse, will too (late) 


Tye Leaden pounds too*s heeles. Proceed by Processc, 

Lest parties (as he is beloved) break out, 

And sacke great Rome with Romanes. 

{Coriolanus^ iii. i. 245.) 

Warburton wanted to give Sicinius the speech about gangrene, 
and certainly it does Coriolanus no good and is a strange speech 
from one of his friends. It is no ingratitude not to ‘ respect a foot 
for its service ’ in a case of gangrene where it may be mortal not 
to cut it off. Of course, you may call it an irony to state the other 
side’s case more strongly than they have done so far for them- 
selves, but it springs from a clear understanding of their feelings; 
both sides are using the same metaphor, even if they are sure they 
want to draw different conclusions from it. Menenius seems 
hardly less conscious of his irony in his next speech, when the 
tiger-footed rage, the swiftness, and the act of scanning it too late 
may belong to the tribunes or to Coriolanus himself ; and it was 
precisely because they proceeded by process, instead of killing him 
out of hand, that Rome came so near to being sacked by a Roman 
before the play was done. 

We are concerned here with a sort of dramatic ambiguity of 
judgment which does not consider the character so much as the 
audience ; thus Menenius seems to have been a very direct par- 
tisan of Coriolanus, but he had to agree with the tribunes to a 
great extent to bring out the point of the situation they were 
arguing about. Evidently this is an important means of handling 
the plot, and may be used to juggle with motivation; it is these 
methods which make lago so effective a villain, and such a 
puzzling figure if you take his character seriously. There is a 
simpler example in the casket scene of The Merchant of Venice. 
Portia is far too virtuous to attempt to evade her father’s devas- 
tating scheme; she fully approves of it (‘ If you do love me, you 
will find me out’); and yet, while Bassanio is choosing, she 
arranges that there should be a song continually rhyming with 
Tead,’ and ending in a conceit about coffins. The audience is 
not really meant to think she is telling him the answer, but it is 
not posed as a moral problem, and seems a natural enough thing 
to do ; she might quite well do it in the belief that he would not 
hear; the song is explaining to them the point about the lead 
casket, may be taken to represent the fact that Bassanio under- 


stands it, heightens the tension by repeating the problem in 
another form, and adds to their sense of fitness in the third man 
being the lucky one. 

Corresponding to this doubt as to Portia’s honesty is a stronger 
one as to Bassanio’s affection; he seems superior to the other 
suitors only in the most incidental qualities, and is more frankly 
mariying for money than any of them. But Shakespeare loved 
his arrivistes for their success, their shamelessness and their self- 
deception, and Bassanio is justified by the song which leads him 
to choose rightly. Fancy is nothing, fancy is fleeting, and yet it 
is all that the dignity of poetry is based upon, and we must ring 
its knell as for the life of man. Lead, a fundamental mere human- 
ity, eventual death, must be accepted, must be chosen, before 
one can get what one wants, and can go on with the poetry of the 
play; fancy can only hide lead, and lead must be enough for the 
maintenance of fancy. 

Irony in this subdued sense, as a generous scepticism which 
can believe at once that people are and are not guilty, is a very 
normal and essential method ; Portia’s song is not more incon- 
sistent than the sorrow of Helen that she has brought death to so 
many brave men, and the pride with which she is first found 
making tapestries of them ; than the courage of Achilles, which 
none will question, ‘ in his impregnable armour with his invulner- 
able skin underneath it ’ ; than the sleepers in Gethsemane, who, 
St. Luke says, were sleeping for sorrow; than the way Thesee (in 
Racine), by the use of a deity, at once kills and does not kill 
Hippolyte. This sort of contradiction is at once understood in 
literature, because the process of understanding one’s friends 
must always be riddled with such indecisions and the machinery 
of such hypocrisy; people, often, cannot have done both of two 
things, but they must have been in some way prepared to have 
done either; whichever they did, they will have still lingering in 
their minds the way they would have preserved their self-respect 
if they had acted diflFerently; they are only to be understood by 
bearing both possibilities in mind. 

Dramatic irony is an interesting device for my purpose, be- 
cause it gives an intelligible way in which the rejfder can be 
reminded of the rest of a play while he is reading a single part of 
it. Thus it gives one some means of understanding the view of 


a work of genius as a sort of miracle whose style carries its per- 
sonality into every part of it, whose matter consists of microcosms 
of its form, and whose flesh has the character of the flesh of an 
organism. For example the messengers in hailing Macbeth 
Thane of Cawdor tell him that Duncan 

Andes thee in the stout Norweyan Rankes, 

Nothing affeard of what thyselfe didst make, 

Strange images of death. 

This remark does not seem to belong very straightforwardly to 
the speech of a state messenger; it is not obvious why he expects 
a soldier to be frightened of his enemies only when he had made 
thexn harmless; but it is just what Macbeth was to feel about 
Duncan ; if the king said this he must have known a great deal 
about Macbeth’s habits of mind. One feels the conceit must 
have arisen, in a mood of moral casuistry, from a sense of the 
oddity in that reliance on convention which gives such different 
reactions to killing at different times; murder as well as soldier- 
ing, therefore, were in the mind of the speaker, and are suggested 
to the audience. Or the negative, more simply, works backwards ; 
there is some question of Macbeth’s being affeard of corpses; 
and this impression of him, given so early in the play, as a power- 
ful and horrifled figure, yielding nothing to the horror of his 
situation, striking out endlessly at the images of death that bank 
round him and shut him in, is as it were a piece of dramatic irony 
on its own account, gives in brief a total impression of the play, 
and puts no stress on the complementary part of the irony, which 
it assumes : 

I am afraid, to think what I have done: 

Looke on ’t againe I dare not. 

In this case, the two parts of the irony convey almost all their 
point separately, without your having to remember one when 
hearing the other. But, in many cases, Shakespeare does not 
help one in this way, and gives ironies for the pleasure rather of 
commentators than of first-night audiences. I shall close this 
desultory discussion with such an example. Cordelia will say 
nothing to show her love or gain her portion. 

Lear. Nothing will come of nothing, speak againe. 


Six hundred Ijnes later, the Fool sings some nonsense verses. 

Lear. This is nothing, foole. 

Fool. Then ’tis like the breath of an unfee’d Lawyer, you gave 
me nothing for ’t. Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle ? 

Lear. Why no. Boy. 

Nothing can be made out of nothing. 

Fool (to Kent). Prithee tell him, so much the rent of his land 
comes to, he will not beleeve a Fool. 

If you fail to connect the second of these with the first, the pain 
of loss, and the nagging of the Fool, are almost all that the 
second can be taken to imply. Only if this quite distant con- 
nection is consciously achieved can you realise Lear’s meaning; 
that he, rather than Cordelia, was the beggar for love on that 
occasion ; that she might well say nothings if she had known how 
he would act to her; that, perhaps, it was no fault of his that had 
spoiled Regan and Goneril, since no upbringing could have 
made anything of them; that these words anyway are the ripe 
fruit of his experience; and that there is indeed nothing that can 
be made out of him, now that he has become nothing by the loss 
of everything in his world. (He is speaking with a curiously 
intimate affection and disregard for dignity, as if the FooPs talk 
was probably his own hallucination, since it gives a love that need 
not be paid for; and it is true that the Fool acts as a sort of 
divided personality externalised from the "‘Ring;) Most people 
are so used to the text that they do 'fiot^e^lise how much the 
effect depends on a verbal irony, whiel>i it would be a feat of 
memory to notice at the first hearing. 

Possibly the richness of the deposit of cross-reference and 
incidental detail upon these plays may be due in some degree to 
the circumstances under which they were written; to the fact 
that Shakespeare wrote up plays already owned by his company, 
and in use, so that he and the actors already knew a great deal 
about them; to the way his version might always receive addi- 
tions and alterations for a revival or a special occasion at Court; 
to the probability that a particular member of the company 
would keep to a particular part ; and to the shortness of individual 
runs. The last reason would keep the actors from <3eing bored 
with the text; the other reasons would give tlfem a casual but 
detailed knowledge (of the sort that leads to flippant quotation 


in the greenroom), a desire for continual additioijs, a capacity to 
see distant verbal connections, and a well-informed interest in 
the minor characters of the story. Shakespeare seems to assume 
all this in his public, and can scarcely have obtained it from any 
one outside. There are some odd and pathetic relics of the state 
of feeling I mean in the mistakes of the folio stage directions, 
where Lord E and Lord G, for minor characters in AlVs Well, are 
presumably the initials of actors; French E\ Capt. G; faint 
traces of the geniality of long-past rehearsals, when they were 
scribbled into the prompt copy. French E and Lord G, at any 
rate, knew what the words were three hundred lines back; for 
French E and Lord G (they would be pleased to know more about 
their own characters), one could drop in such details as allowed 
Professor Bradley to treat the plays as documents from which to 
draw full-length biographies ; if for no other, still for an audience 
upon the stage, one could make those delicate cross-references 
that are now the discoveries of the learned. 


T here are three possible scales or dimensions, that seem of 
reliabltrimjpoftance, along whi^ am biguities may be spread 
out: t he degree of logical or grammatical disorder, t he degree~tp 
which the apprehension of the ambiguity must be conscious, and 
the degree of psychological complexity concerned. Of these, the 
firsFseems ihe one abouc which there is least danger of talking 
nonsense, the one it is most important to be clear about, and the 
one to which least critical attention has so far been paid. My 
seven types, so far as they are not merely a convenient framework, 
are intended as stages of advancing logical disorder. However, 
I shall continually have to be using and discussing the other two 
criteria, and the three are not wholly independent of one another, 
so that my later examples will, as a rule, appear to the casual eye 
‘really’ more ambiguous than the earlier ones. 

An example of the secondjyp&j^mbiguity, in word or syntax, 
occu r^when twn nr mhrrmrarmigf are resolved into one, There 
are alternatives, even in the min d of ^uthnr^ not only different 
emphasgs as in theTirst type; but an ordinary good reading can 
extract one resultant from them. This is more common than any 
of the later types, and I shall giv^t most space. 

The following example shows, I think, the difference between 
logical and psychological degrees of ambiguity; because the 
thought is complicated or at least doubtful, whereas the feeling 
is very direct. 

J Cupid is winged and doth range ; 

Her country so my love doth change. 

But change she earth, or change she sky, 

Yet I will love her till I die. 

(Anon., Oxford Book) 

‘ I will love her though she moves from this part of the earth to one 
out of my reach; I will love her though she goes to live under 
different skies; I will love her though she moves from this 
earth and sky to another planet ; I will love her though she moves 
into a social or intellectual sphere where I cannot follow; I will 
love her though she alters the earth and sky Thave got now, 
though she destroys the bubble of worship in which I am now 



living by showing herself unworthy to be its objpci; I will love 
her though, being yet worthy of it, by going away she changes 
my earth into desire and unrest, and my heaven into despair; I 
will love her even if she has both power and will to upset both the 
orderly ideals of men in general (heaven) and the system of 
society in general (earth) ; she may alter the earth and sky she has 
now by abandoning her faith or in just punishment becoming 
outcast, and still I will love her; she may change my earth by 
filling me, but till it comes I will go on loving^ 

This may look as if I was merely listing different sorts of 
change, which would not, of course, show direct ambiguity; but 
change may mean ‘move to another’ or ‘alter the one you have 
goi,’ and earth may be the lady’s private world, or the poet’s, or 
that of mankind at large. All meanings to be extracted from 
these are the immediate meaning insisted upon by the words, and 
yet the whole charm of the poem is its extravagant, its unreason- 
able simplicity. 

But, in general, complexity of logical meaning ought to be 
based on complexity of thought, even where, as is proper to the 
second type of ambiguity, there is only one main meaning as a 
resultant. For instance, if it is an example of the first type to 
use a metaphor which is valid in several ways, it is an example of 
the second to use several different metaphors at once, as Shake- 
speare is doing in the following example. It is impossible to 
avoid Shakespeare in these matters; partly because his use of 
language is of unparalleled richness and partly because it has 
received so much attention already; so that the inquiring student 
has less to do, is more likely to find what he is looking for, and has 
evidence that he is not spinning fancies out of his own mind. 

As a resounding example, then, there is Macbeth’s 

If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twere well 
It were done quickly ; 

(double syntax since you may stop at the end of the line) 

If th’ Assassination 

Could trammell up the Consequence, and catch 
W^th his surcease. Success; that but . . . 

words hissed in* the passage where servants were passing, which 
must be swaddled with darkness, loaded as it were in themselves 


with fearful powers, and not made too naked even to his own 
mind. Consequence means causal result, and the things to follow, 
though not causally connected, and, as in ‘a person of conse- 
quence,’ the divinity that doth hedge a king. Trammel was a 
technical term used about netting birds, hobbling horses in some 
particular way, hooking up pots, levering, and running trolleys 
on rails. Surcease means completion, stopping proceedings in 
the middle of a lawsuit, or the overruling of a judgment; the 
word reminds you of ‘ surfeit’ and ‘ decease,’ as does assassination 
of hissing and ‘ assess ’ and, as in ‘ supersession,’ through seder e, of 
knocking down the mighty from their seat. His may apply to 
Duncan, assassination or consequence. Success means fortunate 
result, result whether fortunate or not, and succession to Vhe 
throne. And catch, the single little flat word among these 
monsters, names an action ; it is a mark of human inadequacy to 
deal with these matters of statecraft, a child snatching at the 
moon as she rides thunder-clouds. The meanings cannot all be 
remembered at once, however often you read it; it remains the 
incantation of a murderer, dishevelled and fumbling among the 
powers of darkness. 

It is clear that ambiguity, not of word, but of grammar, though 
common enough in poetry, cannot be brought to this pitch with- 
out chaos, and must in general be used to produce a different 
effect. Where there is a single main meaning (the case we are 
now considering) the device is used, as in the following examples 
from Shakespeare Sonnets, to give an interpenetrating and, as it 
were, fluid unity, in which phrases will go either with the sen- 
tence before or after and there is no break in the movement of 
the thought. 

But heaven in thy creation did decree 
That in thy face sweet love should ever dwell, 

Whate’er thy thoughts or thy heart’s workings be, 

Thy looks should nothing thence, but sweetness tell. 


You may put a full stop either before or after the third line. 

That tongue that tells the story of thy days 
(Making lascivious comments on thy sport) 

Cannot dispraise, but in a kind of praise, 

Naming thy name, blesses an ill report. (xcv.) 


The subject of blesses is either tongue or namings but in a kind 
of praise qualifies either blesses or dispraise. These devices are 
particularly useful in managing the sonnet form because they 
help it to combine variety of argumentation and the close-knit 
rhythmical unity of a single thought. 

There is in the following Sonnet one of those important and 
frequent subtleties of punctuation, which in general only convey 
rhythm, but here it amounts to a point of grammar. 

If thou survive my well contented daye 

When that churle death my bones with dust shall cover 

And shalt by fortune once more re-survey : 

These poor rude lines of thy deceased Lover : 

, Compare them with the bettering of the time, . . . (xxxii.) 

Line 4 is isolated between colons, carries the whole weight of the 
pathos, and is a pivot round which the rest of the Sonnet turns. 
Re-survey might conceivably be thought of as intransitive, so that 
line 4 could go with line 5 in apposition to them^ but the point is 
not that either line 3 or line 5 could stand without line 4, it is in 
fact next to both of them, and yet it stands out from either, as if 
the Sonnet had become more conscious of itself, or was making a 
quotation from a tombstone. 

Thou doost love her, because thou knowest I love her. 

And for my sake even so doth she abuse me, 

Suffering my friend for my sake to approve her, 

If I loose thee, my loss is my love's gaine. 

And loosing her, my friend hath found that losse. . . . (xlii.) 

According as line 3 goes backwards or forwards, the subject of 
suffering is either she or 1 . The device is not here merely a 
rhythmic one, but it carries no great depth of meaning; the 
Elizabethans were trained to use lines that went both ways, for 
example in those chains of Sonnets, such as the Corona of Donne, 
in which each began with the last line of the one before. 

Donne, indeed, uses these methods with vehemence; I shall 
break this series from the Sonnets for a moment to quote an 
example from the Epithalamion for Valentine^ s Day, 

Thou mak'st a Taper see 
Wha^the sunne never saw, and what the Arke 
(Which w|is of Soules, and beasts, the cage, and park) 

Did not containe, one bed containes, through thee. 

Two Phoenixes, whose joyned breasts . . . 


^You make a tgper see what the ark did not contain. Through 
you one bed contains two phoenixes.’ ‘You make a taper see 
what the sun never saw. Through you one bed contains what 
the ark did not contain, that is, two phoenixes.’ The renewal of 
energy gained from starting a new sentence is continually 
obtained here without the effect of repose given by letting a 
sentence stop. 

Who lets so fair a house fall to decay. 

Which husbandry in honour might uphold 
Against the stormy gusts of winter’s day 
And barren rage of death’s eternal cold ? 

O none but unthrifts, dear my love you know. 

You had a Father, let your Son say so. (xiii.) ^ 

The phrase in italics is equally suited to the sentences before 
and after it ; taking it as the former, a third meaning shows itself 
faintly, that you know unthrifts \ ‘the company you keep may be 
riotous or ascetic, but is not matrimonial.’ Having quoted this 
for a comparatively trivial point of grammar, it seems worth 
pointing out that its beauty depends first on the puns, house and 
husbandry, and secondly on the shift of feeling from winter's day^ 
winter is short, like its days ; ‘ your child will grow up after you 
and your house will survive to see another summer,’ to death's 
eternal cold', ‘ if the house does not survive this winter it falls for 
ever’; there is a contrast between these two opposite ideas and 
the two open, similarly vo welled, Mario wan lines that contain 
them, which claim by their structure to be merely repeating the 
same thought, so that the two notions are dissolved into both of 
them, and form a regress of echoes. 

Sometimes the ambiguous phrase is a relative clause, with 
‘that’ omitted, which is able to appear for a moment as an in- 
dependent sentence on its own, before it is fitted into the 
grammar. ‘ 

Their images I lov’d, I view in thee, 

And thou (all they) hast all the all of me. (xxxi.) 

There is some suggestion that the first clause may be wholly 
independent, and that I view in thee means ‘ I look for them in 
you*; but on the whole the device merely puts ‘which I loved’ 
into special prominence. 


My life hath in this line some interest, t 
Which for memorial still with thee shall stay. 

When thou reviewest this, thou dost review. 

The very part was consecrate to thee, (Ixxiv.) 

Passing over the comma at the end of the third line, the object of 
review is part ; stressing the comma, it says tautologically, with 
the emphasis on the second thoUy ‘it is enough immortality for 
me to be remembered by you,’ and the fourth line becomes a 
separate sentence.^ 

This fluidity of grammar is partly given by rhetorical balance, 
because since the lines are opposed to one another in regular 
pairs you still get some sort of opposition by opposing the wrong 
pair. Sonnet Ixxxi. runs this principle to death : 

Or shall I live your Epitaph to make. 

Or you survive when I in earth am rotten. 

From hence your memory death cannot take. 

Although in me each part will be forgotten. 

Your name from hence immortall life shall have, 

Though I (once gone) to all the world must dye. 

The earth can yeeld me but a common grave. 

When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lye, 

Your monument shall be my gentle verse, 

Which eyes not yet created shall ore-read. 

And toungs to be, your beeing shall rehearse. 

When all the breathers of this world are dead, 

You still shall live (such vertue hath my Pen) 

Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men. 

Any two consecutive lines in this, except 2-3 and lo-ii for acci- 
dental reasons, make a complete sentence when separated from 
their context; I do not say that this makes it a good sonnet, or 
that I know it ought to be read aloud. 

Tongues can over-read as well as eyeSy and this would leave 
either being the subject of rehearse, or both tongues and eyes. 
However, tongues is particularly connected with rehearse, because 
the contrast of your being with to be (‘in order to be’) shows the 
transient tongues rehearsing your ideal being, lapping up your 
blood as it were, and thus implies a sort of timeless Platonic 
existence f8r Mr. W. H., informing the examples of his type, but 
in no way dependent on them. These shadows of his perfection 

^ A trivial example omitted here. 


were once to have been his children, but Shakespeare’s partly 
scoptophile desire to see him settled in love has by now been with 
a painful irony thwarted or over-satisfied, and they are now no 
more than those who read his praise. 

The following Sonnet is more two-faced in idea (‘ a complaint 
in the form of an assertion that he has no right to complain’), but 
can be put in the second type so far as concerns the ambiguity 
of syntax, as it reduces to a single meaning : 

O let me suffer (being at your beck) 

The imprisoned absence of your liberty, 

And patience tame, to sufferance bide each check, 

Without accusing you of injury. 

Be where you list, your charter is so strong • 

That you yourself may privilege your time 
To what you will, to you it doth belong. 

Yourself to pardon of self-doing crime. (Iviii.) 

And patience tame expresses petulance by its contraction of mean- 
ing (‘suffer tame patience’; ‘be patience-tame,’ as in iron-hard; 
and ‘tame patience,’ as in bide each check) followed by a rush of 
equivocal words, clinched with belong, which has for subject both 
your time and to pardon, and implies, still with sweetness and 
pathos (it is an extraordinary balance of feeling), ‘that is all I 
could have expected of you.’ 

Bvt wherefore do not you a mightier waie 
Make warre vppon this bloudie tirant time ? 

And fortifie your selfe in your decay 

With meanes more blessed than my barren rime } 

Now stand you on the top of happie houres. 

And many maiden gardens yet unset. 

With vertuous wish would beare your liuing flowers. 

Much liker then your painted counterfeit : 

So should the lines of life that life repaire 
Which this (Times pencil or my pupil pen) 

Neither in inward worth nor outward faire 
Can make you hue your selfe in eyes of men, 

To give away your selfe, keeps your selfe still. 

And you must Hue drawn by your owne sweet skill. 


Lines of life refers to the form of a personal apfjearahce, in the 
young man himself or repeated in his descendants (as one speaks 
of the lines of some one’s figure); time’s wrinkles on that face 


(suggested only to be feared); the young man’s ]jne or lineage — 
his descendants; lines drawn with a pencil — a portrait; lines 
drawn with a pen, in writing; the lines of a poem (the kind a 
Sonnet has fourteen of); and destiny, as in the life-line of 
palmistry — Merchant of Venice^ ii. ii. 163. 

This variety of meaning is rooted more effectively in the con- 
text because lines of life and that life may either of them be taken 
as subject of repair ] taking the most prominent meanings, 
‘lineage’ and ‘the features of yourself and your children,’ lines 
is subject, and this is also insisted upon by rhythm and the usual 
sentence order; that life means ‘life such as your present one.’ 
But that life {repair) is given a secondary claim to the position 
b^ this (. . . make), which follows, evidently in contrast, as subject 
in the next line. (Punctuations designed to simplify the passage 
all spoil the antithesis.) This has a bracket expanding its mean- 
ings : time, bringing old age that will pencil you with wrinkles, 
or a riper manhood that will complete your beauty; this Times 
pencil, firstly, the style of painting, or average level of achieve- 
ment, of Elizabethan portrait-painters ; secondly, the frame and 
‘atmosphere’ given to beauty by that age of masques and 
gorgeous clothing and the lust of the eye (so that we must look 
back to the second line of the Sonnet, where the same double 
meaning is hinting that beautiful courtiers in the wake of Essex 
came to bad ends) ; my pen that describes you, pupil as immature 
and unskilful : as pupil of that time whose sonnet tradition I am 
imitating; or of Time which matures me. A natural way to take 
it is that life, ‘your life,’ and this, ‘my life’ (devoted to describing 
you), but the meaning of this opens out into all the transient 
effects which are contrasted with the solid eternity of reproduc- 
tion, and by reflection backwards that life is made subject of its 
sentence, meaning ‘ the new way of life I propose to you,’ that is, 
of matrimony, or of the larger extra-human life in your lineage 
as a whole. 

Independently of whether lines of life or that life is subject and 
whether that life is ‘ your present way of life ’ or ‘ the way of life 
I propose to you,’ there is a double syntax for lines ii and 12. 
Taking thfem together there is a main reading, ‘the age of Eliza- 
beth is not competent to express you, either in your appearance 
or character’ (of the two pairs one would naturally associate the 


artist’s pencil v^th outward faity and the playwright’s pen with 
inward worthy but the order is the other way round, so that each 
works with either, or ‘ I try to write about your beauty, but the 
hand of time, graving the lines of character on your face, tries to 
show your inward worth’). This, the main grammar, involves a 
rather clumsy change from life to you in the object, and this 
greater directness of address, needed after the sagging of grammar 
in the extraordinary complexity of the intervening two lines^ 
leaves room for an alternative syntax. For, taking line ii with 
lo (and preferably that life as subject), it is this which is not fair 
either in inward or outward worth; makey of the present age, 
which has produced out of its worthlessness such a beauty as 
yours, is opposed to repair of the vegetable life, capable of pro- 
ducing many such flowers, which I propose to you; as if the 
greater durability given to a type by making it repeatable, giving 
it to a noble house rather than a single person, was compared to 
making it anew, as ‘risen a heavenly body,’ in the next world, or 
to the placing of it timelessly among Platonic ideas, so that it need 
not be anxious about its particular patterns on earth ; live of line 
12 then becomes an adjective, and the force of so many words in 
apposition, yoUy live, yourself y is to express wonder at the produc- 
tion of such a thing out of the dull world of line 1 1, and make the 
young man, by contrast, ideal, heavenly, or worthy of being made 
into a general type. Line 13, separated from lines 12 and 14 
equally by commas, is as a main meaning cut off into the final 
couplet, ‘ you are not less yourself because you have had children,’ 
but in the minor sense has for subject thiSy ‘ your present life of 
pleasure and brilliance carries in it no eternity, and keeps you 
only to give you away.’ Drawn of line 14 then may take an addi- 
tional echo of meaning, as ‘drawing back,’ dragging yourself out 
of your present way of life, which your lover has not power to 
do for you.^ 

* There may after all be misprints in the text. The doubt as to whether 
that life is subject or object, I now feel, does not add anything important to 
the meanings deduced. Also one should probably put a full stop at the end 
of the twelfth line to cut out the overrun syntax for the final couplet, which 
is assumed to be a final summing up. The Christian paradox of tl>'^ thirteenth 
line could still be taken either way round. 

The stops of the first edition of the Shakespeare Sonnets of course do 
not deserve reverence ; you sometimes even get a comma at the end of a 
sonnet. The claim for them is that they always deserve consideration because 


Ambiguities of this sort may be divided into th^se which, once 
understood, remain an intelligible unit in the mind; those in 
which the pleasure belongs to the act of working out and under- 
standing, which must at each reading, though with less labour, 
be repeated; and those in which the ambiguity works best if it is 
never discovered. Which class any particular poem belongs to 
depends in part on your own mental habits and critical opinions, 
ajid I am afraid that for many readers who have the patience to 
follow out this last analysis, it will merely spoil what they had 
taken for a beautiful Sonnet by showing it to be much more 
muddled than they had realised. This is a pity, but however 
wise the view may be that poetry cannot safely be analysed, it 
seems to me to remain ignoble ; and in so far as people are sure 
that their pleasures will not bear thinking about, I am surprised 
that they have the patience not to submit them to so easy a de- 
struction. The fact is, if analysis gets in your way, it is easy 
enough to forget it ; I do not think that all these meanings should 
pass through the mind in an appreciative reading of this Sonnet; 
what is gathered is the main sense, the main form and rhythm, 
and a general sense of compacted intellectual wealth, of an 
elaborate balance of variously associated feeling. 

One is tempted to think of these effects as belonging to the 
later stages of Renaissance refinement, as something oversophisti- 
cated in the manner of Caroline shape-poems, and due to a 
peculiar clotting of the imagination. It is worth while then to 

they seem to be an inaccurate but unedited version of what Shakespeare 
actually wrote. 

However, I don’t want this note to suggest that the Elizabethans weren’t 
capable of making an ambiguity as to whether a noun is subject or object. 
One might expect the resulting muddle to be too radical to be effective, 
or anyway to form a habit. But it is not hard to find cases of ‘ lyrical ease * 
where the problem is not felt to arise. 

Sleep is a reconciling, 

A rest that peace begets. 

Doth not the sun rise smiling 
When fair at even he sets ? 

Rest you then, rest, sad eyes, 

Melt not in weeping. 

While she lies sleeping 
Softly now lies 

• Sleeping. (Anon. : set by Dowland.) 

Whether rest begefs peace or peace rest (or peace sleep) is not a grammatical 
problem because each does either, just as it is the same sun which comes 
back after the night as before. 


produce examples from Troilus and Criseyde, as one of the most 
leisurely, simplest as to imagery, and earliest poems in English 
literature. In the first love scene between the two, Criseyde says 
petulantly she doesn’t know what she’s expected to say; what 
does he mean, now, in plain words 

What that I mene, O swete herte dere ? 

Quod Troilus. O goodly fresshe free. 

That with the stremes of your eyen clere 

You wolde frendly sometimes on me see ; 

And then agreen that I may be he. . . . 

(iii. 128.) 

and so on for three verses, an enthusiastic and moving state- 
ment of the chivalric evasion of the point at issue. Stremes has 
the straightforward meaning of ‘beams of light’ {Compleynte 
unto Pite^ line 94). The N.E.D. does not give this meaning, but 
shows stremes as already a hyperbolical commonplace use for 
blood and tears, or ‘ beams of sweet influence,’ like those of the 
Pleiades. Thus zittv fresh and free, there is some implication of 
a stream (Naiads) that he can drink of and wash in, cleansing and 
refreshing, so that one glance of her eyes recovers him as by 
crossing a stream you break the spells of black magic, or the 
scent by wliich the hounds of your enemies are tracking you 
down ; and the ready tears of her sympathy are implied faintly, 
as in the background. 

At the climax of the great scene in the second book, when 
Pandarus has got his ward alone to talk to her about her money 
affairs, mysteriously congratulated her on her good luck, and 
gradually led her through the merits of Troilus to an appeal to 
her pity for his unhappiness, Cressida seems suddenly to guess 
his meaning and makes a great display of outraged virtue. One 
must not suppose, of course, because Chaucer shows us her 
machinery — ‘I shal fele what he meneth, I-wis* — ‘It nedeth me 
ful sleyly for to pleye ’ — that we are not to believe in the reality 
of the virtue, or that it is not the modest and proper machinery. 

What ? Is this al the joye and al the feste ? 

Is this your reed, is this my blisful cas? 

Is this the verray mede of your biheste ? 

Is al this pcynted proces seyd, alas. 

Right for this fyn ? 

(ii. 421.) 


The last three lines, I submit, are extremely^ Shakespearean ; 
they have all the concentrated imagery, the bright central meta- 
phor steeped and thickened in irrelevant incidental metaphors, 
of his mature style. I thought at first the meanings might have 
been quite simple in Chaucer’s English, and have acquired a 
patina of subtlety in the course of time ; it would have been fun 
to maintain that Shakespeare learnt his style from a misunder- 
v^tanding of Chaucer; but the N.E.D. leaves no doubt that 
(whether Shakespeare was influenced by it or not) time has faded 
rather than enriched the original ambiguity. 

Reed^ of course, is advice; he had told her her cas was blisfuly 
to have caught the eye of the prince; mede meant at that time 
wages, a bribe, merit, a meadow and a drink made with honey; 
biheste meant a vow, a promise, and a command ; proces meant a 
series of actions, the course of a narrative, proceedings in an 
action at law, and a procession; and fyn meant generally ‘end,’ 
with accepted derivatives like the object of an action, death, and a 
contract; by itself it would not suggest a money penalty before 
1500, but it might suggest ‘money offered in the hope of ex- 
emption.’ Thus the materials are ample enough, but this is not 
to say they were all used. 

I shall pause to illustrate the force of beheste and the harangue 
of Pandarus that has gone before : 

Now understand, that I yow nought requere 
To binde ye to him thorough no beheste, 

But only that yew make him bettre chere, 

Than ye had don er this, and more feste. 

So that his life be saved, at the leste. 

Either ‘ I do not ask it, as a command from your guardian, that you 
should bind yourself to him (permanently or sinfully),’ or ‘I do 
not ask you to bind yourself to him with anything so definite as 
a vow.' 

Think eke, how elde wasteth every houre 
In eche of yow a party of beautee ; 

And therefore, er that age thee devoure, 

«Go love, for olde, ther wol no wight of thee. 

Lat ihis proverbe a lore unto yow be ; 

‘ To late y-war, quod Beautee, whan it paste’; 

And elde daunteth daunger at the laste. 


It is not at first (olain why there is so much power of song in the 
poetical commonplace of the first four lines; why its plainest 
statement seems to imply a lyric ; so that the modern reader feels 
the pre-Raphaelites in it, and Chaucer felt in it his Italians 
{Filostrato, ii. 54). A statement of the limitations of human life 
is a sort of recipe for producing humility, concentration, and 
sincerity in the reader; it soothes, for instance, jealousy, makes 
the labours of the practical world less pressing because less likely 
to make any real difference (games have the same mode of 
approach); sets the mind free, therefore, to be operated on by 
the beauty of the verse without distraction; and makes you 
willing to adopt, perhaps to some slight extent permanently, the 
point of view of the poet or of the character described, because, 
having viewed your limits, marked your boat’s position with re- 
gard to distant objects on the shore, you are able without losing 
your bearings to be turned round or moved to another part of 
the bay. 

Further, to think of human life in terms of its lowest factors, 
considered as in themselves dignified, has a curious effect in 
dignifying the individual concerned; makes him a type, and so 
something larger and more significant than before; makes his 
dignity feel safer, since he is sure he has at least these qualifica- 
tions for it ; makes him feel accepted and approved of by his herd, 
in that he is being humble and understanding their situation 
(poor creatures) ; makes it seem likely, since he understands their 
situation, because he feels it in himself, that they will return to 
him also this reserved and detached sympathy; makes him, 
indeed, feel grander than the rest of his herd, for a new series of 
reasons; because by thinking of them he has got outside them; 
because by forming a concept of them he has made them seem 
limited ; because he has thereby come to seem less subject to the 
melancholy truths he is recognising; because to recognise melan- 
choly truths is itself, if you can be protected somehow, an in- 
vigorating activity; and (so that we complete the circle back to 
humility) because to think about these common factors has a 
certain solidity and safety in that it is itself, after all, one of the 
relevant common factors of the human mind. * 

However, it is the mode of action of the last two lines which is 
my immediate business. Y-war may mean prudent or experi- 


enced ; too late, ‘ Then first when too late/ or ‘ going on until too 
late/ ‘First prudent when too late* — I have found that one 
should be careful to avoid risks, perhaps such as that of never 
getting a lover, but, more strongly, such as are involved in un- 
lawful satisfactions. ‘First conscious when too late*' — I have 
found too late that one should be determined to obtain satisfac- 
tion. ‘ Having been prudent until too late * — I have found that 
one can wait too long for the safest moment for one*s pleasures, 
‘llaving been conscious till too late * — I have found that one can 
seek one’s pleasure once too often. Pandarus, of course, only 
meant the second and third ; Chaucer (it is shown not as irony 
but as a grand overtone of melancholy) meant all four. (This, by 
the way, is the fourth type of ambiguity, but I am taking the 
whole passage together.) ^ 

And elde daunteth daunger at the last. 

Daunt means subdue or frighten; daunger at this time had a 
wealth of meaning that it has since lost, such as disdain, imperi- 
ousness, liability, miserliness, and power. ‘Old age will break 
your pride, will make you afraid of the independence you are now 
prizing; the coming of old age is stronger than the greatness of 
kings, stronger than all the brutal powers that you are now afraid 
of, stronger even than the stubborn passion of misers that defeat 
it for so long; you must act now because when you are old you 
will be afraid to take risks, and you may take heart because, how- 
ever badly you are caught, it will be all the same after another 
century; even in your own lifetime, by the time you are an old 
woman you will have lived down scandal.* Or taking elde as an 
old woman, not as the age that defeats her, the phrase interacts 
with the passing of beauty, whether after a life of sin or of 
seclusion (there appear to have been no alternatives) in the pre- 
ceding line, and the old hag is finally so ugly that all the powers 
in daunger shrink away from the gloom of her grandeur, are either 
lost to her or subdued to her, and the amorous risks and adven- 
tures will be at last afraid to come near. 

^ A dranfbtic irony as such need not be called fourth-type, but this one, 
I think, marks a complexity of feeling in Chaucer (that is, he half agreed with 
Pandarus and half not). I don’t think there are other examples in this 
chapter which properly belong in later chapters. 


The line is ^ straightforward ambiguity of the second type, 
and I hope the reader will not object that I have been making up 
a poem of my own. Mr. Eliot somewhere says that is always 
done by bad critics who have failed to be poets ; this is a valuable 
weapon but a dangerously superficial maxim, because it obscures 
the main crux about poetry, that being an essentially suggestive 
act it can only take effect if the impulses (and to some extent 
the experiences) are already there to be called forth; that the 
process of getting to understand a poet is precisely that of con- 
structing his poems in one’s own mind. Of course, it is wrong to 
construct the wrong poem, and I have no doubt Mr. Eliot was 
right in his particular accusations. 

Is this the verray mede of youre beheste ? 

Is this your reed, is this my blisful cas? 

replies Cressida, to these ambiguities of Pandarus : ‘ Is this the 
wage that is offered to me in return for obeying your commands ? 
Is this my inducement to be a good ward, that I must continually 
have the trouble, and pain to think you so wicked, of repelling 
solicitations ? Is this what your advice is worth ? Is this what 
your promise to look after me is worth ? ’ The honest meaning 
(wage) carries contempt; the dishonest meaning (bribe) an 
accusation. ‘ Is this why the prince has been so friendly with 
you.'^ Is this what you stand to make out of being my 
guardian ? ’ And if mede carries any echo of meaning (it is im- 
possible at this distance of time to say) from the natural freedom 
of the open meadow, or the simple delightfulness of that form of 
beer, we have, ‘ Is this the meadow, or the beer, you had promised 
me, or proposed for yourself? Is this my blissful case you have 
described ? ’ It is the two meanings of beheste which give her so 
powerful a weapon against Pandarus, in his double position of 
guardian and go-between. 

Is al this peynted proces seyd, alas, 

Right for this fyn ? 

These two lines have a lesser but a more beautiful complexity; 
Pandarus’ great harangue is seen, by using the puns 6n fyn and 
process, as a brightly coloured procession {peynted would suggest 
frescoes in churches) moving on, leading her on, to dusty death 


and the everlasting bonfire ; and behind this simple framework, 
that gives the movement, the immediate point, of the phrase, 
process hints at a parallel with legal proceedings, ending where 
none of the parties wanted, when at last the lawyers, like Pan- 
dams, stop talking and demand to be paid; and rising behind 
that again, heard in the indignation of the phrase, is a threat that 
she may expose him, and peyn-ttd and fyn suggest legal pains 
and penalties. 

‘To whom do they suggest these things?' the reader may ask; 
and there is no obvious reply. It depends how carefully the 
passage is supposed to be read; in a long narrative poem the 
stress on particular phrases must be slight, most of the lines do 
ncft expect more attention than you would give to phrases of a 
novel when reading it aloud ; you would not look for the same 
concentration of imagery as in a lyric. On the other hand, a long 
poem accumulates imagery; I am dealing with a particularly 
dramatic point where the meaning needs to be concentrated ; and 
Chaucer had abandoned his original for a moment to write on 
his own. 

It is a more cmcial question how izxpeynted, in a proper setting, 
can suggest ‘ pains ' ; how far we ought to leave the comparatively 
safe ground of ambiguity to examine latent puns. The mle in 
general, I believe, is that a mere similarity of sound will not take 
effect unless it is consciously noticed, and will then give an im- 
pression of oddity. For it is the essential discipline of language 
that our elaborate reactions to a word are called out only by the 
word itself, or what is guessed to be the word itself; they are 
trained to be very completely inhibited by anything near the 
word but not quite right. It is only when a word has been passed 
in, accepted as sensible, that it is allowed to echo about in the 
mind. On the other hand, this very inhibition (the effort of dis- 
tinction, in cases where it would have been natural to have taken 
the other word) may call forth effects of its own; that, for 
instance, is why puns are funny; may make one, perhaps, more 
ready, or for all I know rhythmically more and less ready, to 
react to the word when it comes. I have sometimes wondered 
whether Swinburne's Dolores gets any of its energy from the way 
the word Spain, suggested by the title and by various things in 
the course of the poem, although one is forced to wonder what 


the next rhyme is going to be, never appears among the dozen 
that are paired off with Our Lady of Pain. But so little is known 
about these matters that it is rather unwise to talk about them; 
one goes off into Pure Sound and entirely private associations; 
for instance, I want to back up my ‘ pains * ivompeynted by calling 
in ‘weighted’ and ‘fainted,’ and the suggestion of labour in all 
that painted. The study of subdued bad puns may be very 
important, but it is less hopeful than the study of more rational 
ambiguities, because you can rely on most word associations 
being called out (if one’s mind does not in some way run 
through the various meanings of a word, how can it arrive at 
the right one ?), whereas the puns, in a sense, ought not to be 
there at all. 

A good illustration of this point, not that most people will 
require to be convinced of it, is given by the words ‘rows’ and 
‘rose.’ ‘Rows’ suggests regimentation, order, a card index 
system, and the sciences; ‘rose’ suggests a sort of grandeur in 
the state of culture, something with all the definiteness and inde- 
pendence of Nature that has been produced within the systems 
of mankind (giving a sort of proof of our stability), some of the 
overtones of richness, delicacy, and power of varying such as are 
carried by ‘wine’; various sexual associations from its appear- 
ance and the Romaunt of the Roos; and notions of race, dignity, 
and fine clothes as if from the Wars of the Roses. These two 
words never get in each other’s way; it is hard to believe they are 
pronounced the same. Homonyms with less powerful systems 
of association, like the verb ‘rows’ and the ‘roes’ of fishes, lend 
themselves easily to puns and seem in some degree attracted 
towards the two more powerful systems; but to insist that the 
first two are the same sound, to pass suddenly from one to the 
other, destroys both of them, and leaves a sort of bewilderment 
in the mind.^ 

On the other hand, there was a poem about strawberries in 
Punch a year or two ago, which I caught myself liking because of 

^ What you normally get from a likeness of sound is an added force to 
the Paget effect (p. 14) in cases where there is a clear group of words with 
similar sound and meaning {e.g. skate, skid, skee, scrape). But this makes 
you feel the meaning of the one word more vividly, not confuSfe it with the 
meanings of the others. On the other hand, it might be argucjd that a controlled 
partial confusion of this sort is the only real point of using alliteration and 


a subdued pun ; here what was suggested was a powerful word, 
what was meant was a mere grammatical convenience : 

Queenlily June with a rose in her hair 
Moves to her prime with a langorous air. 

What in her kingdom’s most comely ? By far 
Strawberries, strawberries, strawberries are. 

I was puzzled to know why the first line seemed beautiful till I 
found I was reading Queenlily as ‘ Queen Lily,’ which in a child’s 
poetry-book style is charming; ‘the lily with a rose in her hair,’ 
used of a ripening virgin and hence of early summer, in which 
the absolute banality of roses and lilies is employed as it were 
heraldically, as a symbol intended not to be visualised but at once 
interpreted, is a fine Gongorism, and the alternative adverb sets 
the whole thing in motion by its insistence on the verb. It is 
curious how if you think of the word only as an adverb all this 
playful dignity, indeed the whole rhythm of the line, ebbs away 
into complacence and monotony. 

It is a little unfair, perhaps, to use Chaucer for my purpose; 
I have used him because it is important if true that these effects 
are somehow part of the character of the language, since they 
were so much in evidence so early, and in a writer apparently so 
derivative from the French and Italian literatures, which don’t 
seem ambiguous in the same way. I admit it is much easier to 
muddle one’s readers when using the unfamiliar stresses of four- 
teenth-century speech, and when dealing with unfamiliar uses of 
words. This, for instance, I thought at first was an ambiguity, 
when Troilus’ sickness, caused by love of Criseyde, and used to 
arrange a meeting with her, is announced to the assembled 
company : 

Compleyned eke Eleyne of his sycknesse 
So feithfully, that pitee was to here, 

And every wight gan waxen for accesse 
A leech anon, and seyde, ‘ in this manere 
Men curen folk; this charm I wol yow lere.* 

But there sat oon, al list hir nought to teche. 

That thoughte, beste coude I yet been his leche. 

(ii. 1576.) 

Access in the fourteenth century meant some kind of feverish 
attack, and I believe is not used in any other sense by Chaucer; 


but it was used by Wyclif to mean the act of coming near, or the 
right of coming hear, and acquired later the meaning of accession 
to an office of dignity. So that it might mean that everybody said 
they knew how to cure fevers so as to seem dignified at the party, 
so as to put themselves forward, and perhaps so as to be allowed 
to visit the prince on his sick-bed. The break of the line which 
separates accesse from leech and connects it with gan helps this 
overtone of ironical meaning, which is just what the social 
comedy of the passage requires; and if you wish to stress the 
influence of Chaucer as a stylist, it is these later meanings, and 
not the medical meaning, which were most prominent by the 
sixteenth century; this, for instance, is just the suggestive way 
Shakespeare would use a Latinised word. But to Chaucer at any 
rate, I believe, the joke was strong enough to stand by itself, and 
too pointed to call up overtones ; I have put it in to show a case 
where a plausible ambiguity may be unprofitable, and the sort 
of reasons that may make one refuse to accept it. 

Rather a pretty example turns up when Criseyde is reflecting 
it would be unwise to fall in love (ii. 752). I am, she says, 

Right yong, and stand unteyed in lusty iese 

Withouten jalousye or swich debaat. 

Lese, among the absurd variety of its meaning, includes lies, a 
snare for rabbits, a quantity of thread, a net, a noose, a whip-lash, 
and the thong holding hunting dogs; one would take with these 
lusty in the sense of amorous. Or lese may mean a contract giving 
lands or tenements for life, a term of years, or at will (hence 
guaranteed permanence and safety), open pasture-land (as in 
leas), picking fruit, the act of coursing (she is her own mistress), 
or a set of three (the symbol of companionship as opposed to 
passion) ; one would take with these lusty in the sense of hearty 
and delightful, its more usual meaning at the time. Thus, while 
the intended meaning is not in doubt, to be in lusty lese may be 
part of the condition of being unteyed or of being teyed. I have 
put down most of the meanings for fun ; the only ones I feel sure 
of are : ‘lam not entangled in the net of desire,* and ‘ I am dis- 
entangled like a colt in a meadow*; these are quite enough for 
the ambiguity of syntax. ^ 

You may say that these meanings should be permuted to con- 


vey doubt : ‘ I am sprawling without foothold in the net of desire/ 
and ' I have not been turned out to grass in the wide meadow of 
freedom/ But in paraphrasing these meanings I have had to 
look for an idiom that will hide the main fact of the situation, 
that she is unteyed. Or you might say that stand attracts so 
that lese must be taken only with unteyed. But withouten suggests 
a parallel with unteyed, which would make lese go with teyed. It 
would have been consistent enough with Criseyde’s character to 
have been expressing doubt, but about this line, whatever its 
meaning, there is a sort of complacency and decision which 
convince me it is only of the second type. 

At the same time, I admit that this is a monstrously clotted 
piece of language; not at all, for instance, a thing it would be 
wise to imitate, and it would be unfair to leave Chaucer without 
reminding the reader of something more beautiful. It is during 
the scene, then, leading to the actual seduction of Criseyde, when 
she has no doubt what she wants but is determined to behave 
like a lady, when Troilus is swooning about the place, always in 
despair, and Pandarus sees no immediate prospect of pushing 
them into bed together, that this sheer song of ironical happiness 
pours forth from the lips of their creator. 

But now pray God to quenchen al this sorwe. 

So hope I that he shall, for he best may. 

For I have seen of a full misty morwe 
Folwe ful ofte a merie somer's day. 

And after winter folweth grene May. 

Men sen alday, and reden eke in stories. 

That after sharpe shoures ben victories. 

It is the open and easy grandeur, moving with the whole earth, 
of the middle lines, that made me quote them; my immediate 
point is shoures. It meant charge, or onslaught of battle, or pang, 
such as Troilus’ fainting-fits, or the pains of childbirth; if you 
take it as showers of rain (i. iv. 251), the two metaphors, from 
man and the sky, melt into each other ; there is another connec- 
tion with warriors, in that the word is used for showers of arrows ; 
there is another connection with lovers in that it is used for 
showers of tears. 

I hope I hav^e made out a fair case for a poetical use of ambig- 
uity, in one form or another, as already in full swing in the English 


of Chaucer; so that it has some claim to be considered native to 
the language. I really do not know what importance it has in 
other European languages; the practice of looking for it rapidly 
leads to hallucinations, as you can train yourself always to hear 
a clock ticking : and my impression is that while it is frequent in 
French and Italian, the subsidiary meanings are nearly always 
bad idiom, so that the inhabitants of those countries would have 
too much conscience to attend to them. At any rate it is not true, 
obviously enough, that Chaucer’s ambiguities are copied from 
Boccaccio; I found it very exciting to go through my list in a 
parallel text and see how, even where great sections of the stuff 
were being translated directly, there would be a small patch of 
invention at the point I had marked down.^ "" 

I shall now stop beating about the Chaucerian bushes, and 
pursue my thesis into the very sanctuary of rationality. During 
the eighteenth century English poets were trying to be honest, 
straightforward, sensible, grammatical and plain ; thus it is now 
my business to outwit these poor wretches, and to applaud them 
for qualities in their writings which they would have been horri- 
fied to discover. It is not surprising that this should be possible ; 
‘what oft was thought* has a merely delusive simplicity, and 
‘what were ne’er so well expressed’ as in a compact antithesis are 
these shifts and blurred aggregates of thought by which men come 
to a practical decision. Sometimes they would have called what 
I call an ambiguity a grace, sometimes a generalisation. How 
far their ambiguities are typical of their age and method, how 
fundamental for understanding their verse, it would be more 
difficult to decide. 

What murdered Wentworth, and what exiled Hyde, 

By kings protected, and to kings allied? 

What but their wish indulged in courts to shine. 

And power too great to keep, or to resign ? 

(Johnson, The Vanity of Human Wishes,) 

Allied may mean ‘connected with by marriage,’ or ‘of a similar 
species to,’ so that they were royal, or ‘ allied by treaty to’ in their 
intrigues. Wentworth and Hyde may have wished merely to 
shine^ to shine in courts^ to shine indulged by king and fcourtiers, 

^ I do not know that any critic has either refuted or defended this treat- 
ment of Chaucer. I still believe in it myself. 


or to shine indulged by king and courtiers in courts; or they may 
have indulged their own wish to shine, or to sAine in courts ; or 
there may be a separate general reflection, putting commas after 
wish and courts^ that the wish to shine is after all usually indulged 
in courts, usually, that is, thought a harmless absurdity and 
perhaps helped out by one’s neighbours, or (a very different idea) 
usually recklessly indulged in by oneself. Not all these give very 
different senses, but they are all different ways of reading the 
line aloud, and the two meanings of indulged carry some wealth 
of reflection and variety of feeling, in particular scorn, sympathy, 
respect, and a sort of naturalist’s sense that it was all pre- 

• In the fourth line power may be parallel to wish, or one of its 
objects; their downfall may have been caused by power of a 
certain kind, or a wish of a certain kind ior power. Power, in the 
first case, which people felt was too great for a single favourite, 
so that it aroused resentment, or was too difficult, as a matter of 
calculation, to use rightly; and which could not be resigned 
because it was too tempting to keep it, or because the king would 
not let them go, or because, though they might try not to be in- 
volved in intrigues, they found themselves so important that any 
action, however apparently negative, became a hint and was 
construed as intriguing, or because, even if they resigned their 
power with the king, they would still have power through what 
had now become a false reputation of influence, or simply because 
they would now feel too responsible, when something was going 
on, not to take a hand. Their wish, in the second case (which 
respects them less and makes them less aware of their difficulties) 
was to get so much, power that it was too great, for reasons such as 
those listed above; or to get power so great that they could 
resign {wish ... to resign . . . power) with plenty of money, or a 
sense of security, or a sense that vanity was now satisfied, and 
power having been now gained and displayed need not further 
be used ; or simply, taking the last clause as a separate case, their 
fall came when they became afraid of their power and wanted to 
get rid of it, and made efforts to resign which, entangled as they 
were, could only excite suspicion. However little these later 
meanings are intended to be considered by the reader, the line, 
I think, conveys by its knotted complexity, by the sense that 


there are grammatical depths the casual reader has not plumbed, 
some such ideas of fatal involution as these I have been ela- 

These couplets are a triumph for Johnson, but they are the 
by-product of a failure to achieve, rather than the reward for 
achieving, the compactness and polish he desired. The slighter 
ambiguity which is normal to the heroic couplet is of a different 
sort, and we must dip back into the first type to fish it up. 

It is odd to consider that what is a double meaning ^ in one 
language is often only a compactness of phrasing in another; that 
in the sophisticated tongues of many savage tribes you cannot 
say : ‘ Bring me my gun, the dogs, and three beaters ’ — using the 
same verb, and the same inflexion of it, for three such differerlt 
actions — without being laughed at as a man who has made a bad 
pun. It is the part of a civilised language to be simplified in 
structure and generalised in its notions; of a civilised people to 
keep their linguistic rules and know what they are about; but 
this must not blind us to the nature of such phrases as 

There thou, great Anna, whom three realms obey. 

Dost sometimes council take, and sometimes tea. 

(Pope, Rape of the Lock,) 

where the effect of limited comprehensiveness, of a unity in 
variety mirrored from the real world, is obtained by putting to- 
gether two of the innumerable meanings of the word take. 

To rest, the cushion and soft dean invite, 

Who never mentions hell to ears polite, 

(Pope, Moral Essays, iv.) 

depends on an even slighter, but still genuine enough, ambiguity 
of the verb. 

This way of suggesting grasp of mind, ingenuity, and control 
over things, this use of a word with several extended meanings 
so as to contract several sentences into one, is the fundamental 
device of the Augustan style. The word is usually a verb pre- 
cisely because the process is conceived as an activity, as a work 

^ In the first edition I put ‘ ambiguity * not double meaning, ^ut this no 
doubt extends the term ambiguity confusingly. Effecli worth calling 
ambiguous occur when the possible alternative meanings of word or grammar 
are used to give alternative meanings to the sentence. 


of the digesting and controlling mind. The Decline and Fall of 
the Roman Empire^ for instance, is one enormous panorama of 
these little witticisms. 

Of course, the zeugma is not an eighteenth-century invention, 
but it was not handled before then with such neatness and 
consciousness, and had not the same air of being the normal 
process of thought. 

• As such a starre, the Magi led to view 

The manger cradled infant, God below ; 

By vertue’s beams by fame derived from you 
May apt soules, and the worst may, vertue know. 

TJ|;ie first may means ‘ may be expected to,’ the second ‘ can if they 
choose.’ This is the sort of construction Pope would have 
handled well; Donne does it very clumsily. Notice, however, 
that the second hy may either be parallel to the first, so that the 
beams of virtue are its fame, or may be subordinate to it so as to 
show how the beams of virtue came to be distributed. This, and 
the two uses of vertue, corresponding to the two conceptions of 
it as an attribute of, or personified in, the Countess of Hunting- 
don, give some weight of thought to an otherwise clumsy 

Your (or you) vertue two vast uses serves, 

It ransomes one sex, and one Court preserves. 

‘Your virtue serves two uses’; or ‘you, being virtue itself, serve 
two uses ’ ; or ‘ you serve (the cause of) virtue two uses.’ Donne’s 
unfortunate address to the Countess of Bedford may serve to 
remind us that the eighteenth-century ambiguity was essentially 
easy and colloquial; it was concerned to exploit, as from a 
rational and sensible mental state, the normal resources of the 
spoken language. 

Its possible grace and slightness may be shown by a fine detail 
from the Rape of the Lock. When Belinda wins at cards 

The nymph, exulting, fills with shouts the sky; 

The walks, the woods, and long canals reply. 

Oh thoughtless mortals, ever blind to fate, 

^00 soon dejected, and too soon elate, 

Sudfien these honours shall be snatched away. 

And cursed for ever this victorious day. 


Reply may be transitive or intransitive. It is the poet who makes 
these classical reflections, but, as far as the grammar is concerned, 
the speaker may as well be the environs of Hampton Court, 
accustomed as they are to the fall of favourites and the brevity 
of human glory. 

Such a use of the verb may be insisted upon by prepositions 
or adverbs placed where the different meanings are wanted; this 
needs no illustration, and my example is intended chiefly to show 
in how small a compass these typical devices may be employe*d. 

Oh, if to dance all night, and dress all day, 

Charmed the small pox, or chased old age away. 

Who would not scorn what housewives cares produce, 

Or who would learn one earthly thing of use ? * 

(Essay on Women,) 

Here charmed at first means ‘fascinated,' so as to make it sit still 
and do no harm, as one would do to snakes or one’s husband; 
and then, because chased insists on the activity of this process, 
and because away is in a prominent position at the end of the 
line, charmed takes on a new meaning as charmed away^ ‘removed 
entirely even when it had already arrived,’ no doubt by some 
apparently unreasonable incantation, as one does warts. It is 
these slight variations of suggestion, I think, that give vivacity 
to the line. 

In the same way, the lyrical outburst of good sense that follows 
on from this plays continually on the border-line between the 
first and second types of ambiguity. 

But, since, alas, frail beauty must decay. 

This insists it is reasonable by being a tautology : ‘ in so far as 
beauty is frail it is exposed to decay’; hut frail from its setting 
also carries a suggestion of moral as well as physical fragility, 
which continues to haunt the verses. 

Curled, or uncurled, since locks will turn to grey. 

Locks may have been curled by art (or uncurled for that matter), 
or have been, to start with, (naturally) curled; so that we have 
now three ways of dividing up women — chaste-susceptible, from 
the first line ; beautiful-ugly, if uncurled hair is outr of fashion, and 
artificial-natural, from the second. Will turn to grey is in part a 


simple and inexorable future tense, the statement of Nature or 
the poet, and in part the metre makes it a statenr/snt of the lady; 
‘It mil turn to grey, the nasty stuff, I catCt stop it.’ 

Since, painted, or not painted, all shall fade. 

Artificial-natural, with its associate susceptible-chaste, is now 
strengthened against beautiful-ugly as the distinction in question, 
but not left in possession of the field ; painted might be applied 
to*^* meads’ in Pope’s dialect, and had not quite lost the sense of 
‘coloured from whatever cause.’ 

The verb is now only future, as the place of the ambiguous 
will at the place of emphasis has been taken by all Both these 
changes help the crescendo. 

And she who scorns a man must die a maid. 

The wave as it breaks returns to tautology, from which the 
original beautiful-ugly criterion seems to have faded out. It may 
combine artificial-natural with wanton-chaste; ‘modesty and 
virtue are no security, because if you don’t make the most of 
yourself you won’t get a husband’; or may oppose them to one 
another; ‘artificiality and virtue are no security, because if you 
think yourself too fine for any of the available men you won’t 
get a husband either.’ The tautology chiefly breaks down in its 
tenses, and thus implies that ‘ you may not want a husband now, 
whether because you are too humble or too fanciful, too chaste 
or too gay, but in the end, every woman must admit it was what 
she needed.’ In this roundabout way, by not defining the rela- 
tion between two criteria and leaving a loophole in a tautology. 
Pope arrives, as did Chaucer in flat sentences, at what may indeed 
be the fundamental commonplace of poetry, a statement of the 
limitations of the human situation. ‘Seeing then the inherent 
crudity of all possible earthly happiness, considering the humility 
of those demands which can alone hope to be satisfied . . .’ 

What then remains, but well our power to use. 

And keep good humour still, whate’er we lose ? 

Well may^mean ‘thoroughly’ or ‘with moderation,’ and thus 
implies a sort gf humility and good humour in deciding which of 
them is best in any particular situation. Still may mean that wc 


must always keep our balance, always be prepared to laugh at the 
absurdity of thVj world and our own nature, or keep it still may 
mean that we must be careful not to laugh too publicly, to give 
ourselves away by not insisting on our dignity or our rights.^ 
Reviewing, finally, the three sets of opposites, we may lose beauty, 
refinement, or virginity, the lover we had desired, the privacy 
we had built up, or the husband it would have been wise to 

It is interesting to find Dryden using the sort of ambiguity *6f 
syntax we have considered in the Shakespeare Sonnets, which, on 
the whole, is not encouraged by the couplet : 

And what to Guiscard is already done. 

Or to be done, is doom’d by thy Decree, 

That if not executed first by thee, 

Shall on my Person be perform’d by me. 

Or to he done conveys ‘is to be done to Guiscard,’ or ‘is doomed 
to be done by thy decree,’ going with the phrase before or after; 
Sigismond’s broken tones of horror are not unheard, though 
subdued to the firm coherence of her language, and though 
actually conveyed by its unusually intense logical interconnection. 
All the Chaucer ambiguities I have used, by the way, were com- 
posed by that poet in the intervals while he was writing out of his 
own head, and had abandoned Boccaccio for the moment, so this 
is our first opportunity of comparing a translator’s ambiguity 
with the original : 

Per do che io t’accerto che quello che di Guiscardo fatto avrai o 
farai, se di me non fai il simigliante, le mie mani medesime il 

No one, of course, would expect the ambiguity to be in the 
Boccaccio, but it is worth quoting to show that Dryden was 
following it as closely as he could, so that perhaps his effect was 
forced upon him by the genius or the weakness of English, and 
you may say that he would have been at pains to alter it if it had 
been pointed out to him. This may be true, but I am sure he 
would have felt it was a pity. 

^ The idea that the rival idiom ‘keep still’ pokes up, I now«think, was a 
folly on my part. It would suggest ‘ Keep good humour ^from acting,’ and 
Pope would not intend to contradict himself flatly in a moral sentiment. 
But still (‘ even then ’) does, I think, enrich itself a little with the idea ‘ calm.’ 


And again : 

Sometimes *tis grateful to the rich, to ti^ 

A short vicissitude, and fit of Poverty: 

A savoury dish, a homely treat, 

Where all is plain, where all is neat, 

Without the stately spacious Room, 

The Persian Carpet, or the Tyrian Loom, 

Clear up the cloudy foreheads of the Great. 

The third line either goes backwards, as ‘what the rich try,’ 
or forwards, as ‘what clears up their foreheads.’ The fifth line 
either goes backwards, as ‘ outside,’ so that the man is remember- 
ing his Room which is quite near, and has just come outside for 
a pifnic, or as ‘ without assistance from ’ so that only the reader 
is thinking of it ; or goes forwards, as ‘ at a time when they cannot 
clear up,’ or ‘even admitting that these stronger things cannot 
clear up.* If both lines three and five go backwards, ‘which’ 
must be understood before clear up. All this gives the last line 
at once an extra emphasis and a curiously accidental air, and gives 
one a vague impression that it is an Alexandrine.^ 

Again, this is a translation; it seems likely that Dryden in his 
original writing was anxious to keep English syntax out of its 
natural condition of ambiguity and squalor, but when he was 
translating there were too many other things to think of, and he 
slipped back into the loose forms of syntax to which his instru- 
ment was accustomed. I shall quote the lines from which these 
are expanded ; perhaps some ambiguity arises from the effort to 
put as much stress on the final verb as possible, in imitation of 
the original : 

Plerumque gratae divitibus vices 
Mundaeque parvo sub lare pauperum 
Cenae, sine aulaeis et ostro, 

Sollicitam explicuere frontem. 

(Horace, OdeSy iii. 29.) 

The heroic couplet is rich in a peculiar ambiguity of syntax of 
the second type, which gives fluidity of thought and several 
superimposed rhythms, and may partly explain why this metre 

is not as monotonous as it has so often been said to be. For 


^ This interpretation does not work for the printed text, because the 
punctuation gives one clear syntax. But it would be hard to read the verse 
aloud so that a listener was not tempted into the other syntax. 


instance, at the climax of Absalom and AchitopheU David breaks 
silence with 

Thus long have I by Native Mercy sway’d, 

My Wrongs dissembl’d, my Revenge delay’d ; 

So willing to forgive th’ Offending Age ; 

So much the Father did the King assuage. 

Sway^dy dissembVdy delayed may each be either verb or par- 
ticiple independently. Granting that at least one must be a verb, 
there are seven rhythms in all, seven sets of evidence for deciding 
exactly how strongly David is feeling, how harshly he is likely to 
punish. Sway^dy if verb, gives, ‘I have ruled the country by 
merciful means*; if participle, ‘my natural mercy has induced 
me either to delay or to dissemble, or both.* You notice the two 
following lines, by making a sentence and a clause parallel to one 
another, increase the plausibility of mixing up the two gram- 
matical forms; the use of this in the third and fourth lines them- 
selves is to give finality to the fourth, while yet making it parallel 
to the third. For the variety of possible feeling in the first two 
lines (this method of making overtones cancel is here being used 
to give a judicial, non-partisan air to the speaker without detract- 
ing from his majesty), consider first swayed as the only main verb 
so that the second line is merely jaunty, and then delay'd as the 
only main verb so that the couplet advances with a terrible con- 
tinence to its revenge. 

The heroic couplet in any case depends very much on par- 
ticiples for its compactness, so that an opportunity for this device 
often turns up. It is most often used in a subdued form, as in the 
following example, where the second half of the antithesis is 
given finality by a faint ambiguity of sense, and this is supported 
by an ambiguous participle. 

But true Nobility is of the Mind ; 

Not given by Chance, and not to Chance resigned. 


Resigned may convey ‘not given back when adverse chance 
demands it,* or in a wider sense which really includes both halves 
of the line, so as to sum it up, ‘kept back from th^ control of 
chance; unheld by absolute and extra-temp^^ral sources of 
strength; not dependent on chance as its fundamental cause/ 


‘It did not resign itself to chance/ taking the participle as active 
past tense, gives a sort of resonance to this second meaning, as if 
the thing had been settled once and for all, was a plain matter of 
previous contract, was a privilege left to us at the Fall of Man. 

And in Gray^s Cat (of so much variety is a linguistic device 
capable) the ambiguous participle shows us the creature, in a 
thoughtful, complacent mood, folding her paws : 

Demurest of the tabby kind 
The pensive Selina reclined. 

Gazed on the lake below. 

Reclined is either participle, heraldically, as in ‘couchant,’ or verb 
so aj> to give a dumpy repose to the verb with the same subject 
immediately after. 

Mr. T. S. Eliot provides a grand example of this trick. 

The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne. 

Glowed on the marble, where the glass 
Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines 
From which a golden Cupidon peeped out 
(Another hid his eyes behind his wing) 

Doubled the flames of seven-branched candelabra 

Reflecting light upon the table as 

The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it. 

From satin cases poured in rich profusion; 

In vials of ivory and coloured glass 
Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes. 
Unguent, powdered, or liquid — troubled, confused 
And drowned the sense in odours ; stirred by the air 
That freshened from the window, these ascended 
In fattening the prolonged candleflames. 

Flung their smoke into the laquearia. 

Stirring the pattern on the coffered ceiling. 

What is poured may be cases ^ jewels y glittery or light y znA profusioHy 
enriching its modern meaning with its derivation, is shared, with 
a dazzled luxury, between them; so that while some of \ht jewels 
are pouring out light from their casesy others are poured about, as 
are their caseSy on the dressing-table. If referring to glittery 
poured may, in any case, be a fnain verb as well as a participle. 
There is a iHore trivial point of the same kind in the next line, 
where glass may^stand alone for a glass bottle or may be paired 
with ivory (‘vials of glass*); and unstoppered may refer only to 


glass y or to vials and glass y or to vials of glass and of ivory ; till 
lurkedy which' is for a moment taken as the same grammatical 
form, attracts it towards perfumes. It is because of this blurring 
of the grammar into luxury that the scientific word synthetic is 
able to stand out so sharply as a dramatic and lyrical high light. 

The ambiguity of syntax in poured is repeated on a grander 
scale by 

Unguent, powdered, or liquid — troubled, confused. 

And drowned the sense in odours ; stirred by the air ... * 

where, after powdered and the two similar words have acted as 
adjectives, it gives a sense of swooning or squinting, or the stirring 
of things seen through heat convection currents, to think of 
troubled and confused as verbs. They may, indeed, be kept as 
participles belonging to perfumeSy to suggest the mingling of 
vapours against the disorder of the bedroom ; for it is only with 
the culminating drowned that we are forced either to accept the 
perfumes as subject of a new sentence, or the sense as an isolated 
word, perhaps with ‘was* understood, and qualified by three 
participles. For stirredy after all this, we are in a position to 
imagine three subjects as intended by these \ perfumes y sense y and 
odours (from which it could follow on without a stop); there is a 
curious heightening of the sense of texture from all this dalliance ; 
a suspension of all need for active decision ; thus ascended is held 
back in the same way as either verb or participle in order that no 
climax, none of the relief of certainty, may be lacking to the last 
and indubitable verb flung. 

It may be noted that the verse has no variation of sense 
throughout these ambiguities, and very little of rhythm ; it loses 
nothing in definiteness from being the poetry of the English past 

Webster was much possessed by death 
And saw the skull beneath the skin ; 

And breastless creatures underground 
Leaned backward with a lipless grin. 

(T. S. Eliot, Poems.) 

Leanedy again, may be verb or participle; either ‘Webster saw 
the skull under the skin and the skeletons under «the ground, 
which were leaning backwards’ {leaned may be ^verb with ‘that’ 
understood, as so often in English, but it is hard to distinguish 


this case from the participle), or, stressing the semi-colon, 
‘Webster saw the skull under the skin, but meanwhile, inde- 
pendently of him, and whether seen or no, the creatures under- 
ground leaned backward,’ both in order to have their laugh out, 
and to look upward at the object of their laughter. The verse, 
whose point is the knowledge of what is beyond knowledge, is 
made much more eerie by this slight doubt. 

Donne, I suppose, was such another, 

Who found no substitute for sense ; 

To seize and clutch and penetrate, 

Expert beyond experience. 

He knew the anguish of the marrow 
The ague of the skeleton; 

No torments possible to flesh 
Allayed the fever of the bone. 

According as lines 3 and 4 go forwards or backwards, there are 
two versions of the syntax, corresponding to the two elements of 
the paradox in line 4. ‘ Donne found no substitute for desire and 
the world of obvious reality known through the senses, as a means 
of investigation, because the habits of the body, or its appre- 
hension of reality, have always information still reserved from 
one who is experienced in them, and are more profound than any 
individual w^ho lives by them is aware.’ This is the meaning if 
the first verse is a self-contained unit, whether expert refers to 
sense or Donne, and line 3 to substitute or expert. Or, taking lines 
3 and 4 with the next verse, ‘ Donne, who was expert beyond the 
experience of sense at penetrating, who could form ideas which 
sense could not have suggested, knew also those isolated and 
fundamental pains, the anguish of the marrow and the ague of the 
skeleton, which sense could not have known, and could not allay.’ 
‘ Value and a priori knowledge are not known through sense ; and 
yet there is no other mode of knowledge. No human contact is 
possible to our isolation, and yet human contacts are known to be 
of absolute value.’ This I take to be the point of the poem, and 
it is conveyed by the contradictory ways of taking the grammar. 
Of course, yon may say the lines are carefully punctuated, so that 
the grammar cafi only be taken one way, but in each case it is the 
less obvious grammar which is insisted on by the punctuation. 


However, in finding reasons to admire such effects, one must 
remember that’ the English language makes them difficult to 
avoid; here is Andrew Marvell playing exactly the same tricks 
without any excuse that I can see. 

See how the Orient Dew, 

Shed from the bosom of the Morn 
Into the blowing Roses 
Yet careless of its Mansion new; 

For the clear Region where ’twas born 
Round in itself encloses : 

And in its little Globes Extent, 

Frames as it can its native Element. 

{On a Drop of Dew.) 

Shed is active verb in the perfect tense, or past participle ; careless 
may or may not understand ‘is’; /or, etc., conveys ‘for the sake 
of the upper region where it was born, and to keep up its tradi- 
tion, it encloses round in itself,’ or ‘ being careless, because the 
upper region where it was born is still enclosing it round,’ 
whether because the drop cannot conceive of being enclosed by 
anything else, or because its clear region does in fact enclose the 
whole earth; and in the last line but one may be taken as applying 
either to the subordinate clause or to the complete sentence that 
follow; and frames, in the closing line, is the only word that is 
undoubtedly a main verb following how. 

Marvell’s own Latin version of this, by the way, begins 

Cemis ut Eoi descendat Gemmula Rons 

with a complete sentence right away. I don’t suppose he was 
very proud of the delicious weakness and prolonged hesitation of 
his English syntax; but you may say it conveys the delicacy of 
the dewdrop, and how sickeningly likely it was to roll off the 

I shall now return to Shakespeare and allow myself a couple of 
digressions; about the emendations of his text and his use of a 
particular grammatical form. 

Some readers of this chapter, I should like to believe, will have 
shared the excitement witlx which it was written, will have felt 
that it casts a new light on the very nature of languages, and must 
either be all nonsense or very startling and new. ^ A glance at an 
annotated edition of Shakespeare, however, will be enough to 


dispel this generous illusion; most of what I find to say about 
Shakespeare has been copied out of the Arden ifext. I believe, 
indeed, that I am using in a different way the material that three 
centuries of scholars and critics have collected; without such a 
claim it is impertinent to add to the vast library about Shake- 
speare; but the difference here is merely one of interpretation. 

The conservative attitude to ambiguity is curious and no doubt 
wise ; it allows a structure of associated meanings to be shown in 
a note, but not to be admitted; the reader is encouraged to 
swallow the thing by a decent reserve; it is thought best not to 
let him know that he is thinking in such a complicated medium. 
So it is assumed, except when a double meaning is very conscious 
and almost a joke, that Shakespeare can only have meant one 
thing, but that the reader must hold in mind a variety of things 
he may have meant, and weight them, in appreciating the poetry, 
according to their probabilities. Here as in recent atomic physics 
there is a shift in progress, which tends to attach the notion of a 
probability to the natural object rather than to the fallibility of 
the human mind. 

Very likely the editors do not seriously believe their assump- 
tion; indeed I have myself usually said ‘either ... or* when 
meaning ‘both . . , and.’ But the tone of the convention is well 
shown by the following note on a passage I have already con- 
sidered (p. 1 8). It is with a pretty turn of grammar, such as 
might have been included in my seventh type among perversions 
of the negative, that the Arden editor insists on the variety of 
associations the word rooky had for an Elizabethan audience. 

This somewhat obscure epithet, however spelt (and it should be 
spelt rouky)^ does not mean ‘murky’ or ‘dusky’ (Roderick, quoted 
by Edward’s Canons of Criticism^ 1765); nor ‘damp,’ ‘misty,’ 
‘steamy with exhalations’ (Steevens, also Craig); nor ‘misty,’ 
‘gloomy’ (Clar. Edd.); nor ‘where its fellows are already as- 
sembled* (Mitford), and has nothing to do with the dialectic word 
‘roke’ meaning ‘mist,’ ‘steam,’ etc. . . . the meaning here ... I 
THINK, is simply the ‘rouking* or perching wood, 1.^., where the 
rook (or crow) perches for the night. 

Now, o£* course, the reason an honest editor puts down the 
other possibilities, as well as the one he is tentatively in favour 
of himself, is simply that these meanings had seemed plausible 


to scholars before; might, for all we know, therefore, have 
seemed plausible to anybody in the first-night audience ; might 
have seemed plausible to Shakespeare himself, since he was no 
less sensitive to words than they. There is no doubt how such 
a note acts; it makes you bear in mind all the meanings it puts 
forward. I cannot now make the imaginative effort of separating 
the straightforward meaning of the line from this note; I feel as 
if one was told elsewhere in the text, perhaps by the word 
thickens^ or by the queer hollow vowels of rooky woody that the 
wood was dark and misty; but rooky y by attraction from croWy 
and ignoring the rest of the note, merely suggests ‘ built over by 
rooks; where other rooks are; where this rook will perch.* 
Since this is the normal experience of readers, we must conclude 
either that a great deal has been added to Shakespeare by the 
mere concentration upon him of wrong-headed literary attention, 
or that his original meaning was of a complexity to which we must 
work our way back, and which we may as well acknowledge 
without attempting to drape ourselves in a transparent chain of 

Thus, I believe the nineteenth-century editor secretly believed 
in a great many of his alternatives at once, and there is no need 
for exhortation in the matter. The eighteenth-century editor 
had none of this indifferentism; his object was to unmix the 
metaphors as quickly as possible, and generally restore the text to 
a rational and shipshape condition. We have no longer enough 
faith to attempt such a method,^ but its achievements must be 
regarded with respect, both because it has practically invented 
some of Shakespeare’s most famous passages and because, in its 
more naive forms, it may often show how the word it supplants 
came into Shakespeare’s mind. 

Thus, to take one of the famous cruces in Machethy 

My way of life 

Is falne into the Seare, the yellow Leafe, 

is an achievement we must allow no emendation to remove; but 
Johnson’s May of life seems to me a valuable piece of retro- 
spective analysis, because it shows how the poetrj*^ was con- 
structed ; first, there would be an orderly framewoik of metaphor, 
then any enrichment of the notion which kept to the same verbal 


framework and was suggested easily by similarity of sound. 
Indeed, considering Shakespeare’s known* sensibility for puns, 
I think Pope’s gibe was a sort of opposite of the truth : 

There hapless Shakespeare, yet of Tibbald sore. 

Wished he had blotted for himself before ; {Dunciad,) 

he had blotted for himself, and Tibbald was bringing back the 
first draft. 

It requires a stronger faith to apply this method to the words 
immediately preceding : 

I am sick at heart . . . this push 

Will cheere me ever, or dis-eate me now. 

Emendations are chair and cheer (then pronounced the same); 
disseat, disease^ disseizes and defeat. Cheer suggests the plaudits 
of a victorious army and recovery from melancholia; eate 
suggests the hostile army, regarded as an ogre that would eat 
him up, and the remorse that was gnawing at his entrails. 

Now, it seems most unlikely that Shakespeare was less con- 
scious of these alternatives than his commentators, and most 
unlikely that he would be satisfied by dis-eate^ considered as a 
word on its own, and intended to mean the opposite of eating. 
You may say, then, in defiance of Heminge and Condell, that the 
present text shows the printer baffled by successive corrections, 
from one to another of the emendations you fancy ; or you may 
say that Shakespeare actually intended, by putting down some- 
thing a little removed from any of the approximate homonyms, 
to set the reader groping about their network. One must con- 
sider, before dismissing this second idea as absurd, that the 
Elizabethans minded very little about spelling and punctuation; 
that this must have given them an attitude to the written page 
entirely diflPerent from ours (the reader must continually have 
been left to grope for the right word) ; that from the comparative 
slowness, of reading as of speaking, that this entailed, he was 
prepared to assimilate words with a completeness which is now 
lost; that only our snobbish oddity of spelling imposes on us the 
notion that one mechanical word, to be snapped up by the eye, 
must have be^#n intended; and that it is Shakespeare’s normal 
method to use a newish, apparently irrelevant word, which 


spreads the attention thus attracted over a wide map of the ways 
in which it may <be justified. Or, thirdly, if we must not suppose 
the Child of Nature ever blotted, in the course of pouring im- 
mortality in a cramped, trying script on to the page, you may say 
that he knew better than to pause and allow his mind to be clotted 
with emendations; that he put down dis-eate because it was the 
first word he could drag out by the heels out of an intense and 
elaborate speech-situation that included all the puns editors have 
yet devised for it; that this had at all costs to be swept out of Ris 
way to make room for the May of life and its galaxy of puns 
(which were evidently going to produce something better) ; and 
that it was only by being as ruthless as this that he could bear in 
mind the soliloquy as a whole. I am sorry to appear so fantastic, 
but I can form no other working notion of what this unique mind 
must have been like when in action; and to propose emendations 
without having any such notion to correct them by is merely to 
hack out of the quarry a small poem of one’s own.^ 

Of the simpler thesis, more capable of being tested, that one 
main type of emendation goes back to the poet’s (probably 
mental) rough draft, the best example I know comes in Measure 
for Measure^ i. iii. 19: 

Duke. We have strict Statutes, and most biting Laws, 

(The needful bits and curbes to headstrong weeds) 

Which for these fourteen years, we have let slip, 

Even like an o’ergrowne Lyon in a Cave 
That goes not out to prey. 

‘ Tibbald ’ emended weeds to ‘ steeds,’ also slip to ‘ sleep.’ Here, 
if anywhere, one would think, an emendation is justifiable; if 
you fix ‘steeds’ firmly in your head the other becomes nonsense. 
But it is curious, now that we have a simple straightforward line 
and one tidy metaphor, how the rhythm has become a plain 
didactic sing-song, how it might all have come out of Promos and 
Cassandra^ the original version of the story. And what does come 
out of Promos and Cassandra^ on the same theme, is 

Promos. So that the way is by severity 

Such wicked weedes even by the rootes to teare. • (ii. 3.) 

^ Of course, if this is true, the Bard is not to be praised' Sfor the result in 
the present case, and the actor ought to choose some intelligible emendation. 


Thus Shakespeare is likely to have had the image from weeds 
lying about in his mind; and if you wish to expiress contempt of 
Lucio, it is certainly better done by calling him a ‘fat weed that 
roots itself at ease on Lethe wharf’ than by invoking the energy 
and beauty, the martial and aristocratic associations, of a stallion. 
You may say that Shakespeare, though not the Duke, had both 
attitudes towards the wicked in mind, and would have been 
prepared to call them ‘steeds.’ But this element in his judg- 
ment is sufficiently expressed by calling them headstrong \ it 
is Measure for Measure to move from one attitude to the other; 
and it is in keeping with the tone of this period of his develop- 
ment that he should start with ‘steeds’ and then change, 
with a twinge of disgust, to weeds. Bitingy it is pleasant to 
see, besides making a sort of pun with bits, expresses both 
the effect of a curb on a ‘steed* and the effect of a scythe on a 
weed. Or, for that matter, of a ‘steed’ on a weed\ the Duke 
will not mind seeing himself under this character, and there 
is usually a certain amount of interaction between such rival 

The issue between slip and ‘sleep’ is less sharp; but not 
different; ‘sleep’ will apply to bits which are not being used for 
curbing ‘steeds,’ and it might suggest the transition to weeds, but 
when ‘steeds’ has been changed to weeds, slip is better, because 
it applies both to ‘ letting the growing weeds escape one’s notice ’ 
(which would have been covered by ‘sleep’) and to ‘letting the 
weeds slip out of the closing jaws of the shears ’ ; further, in so 
far as it concerns bits (which unlike ‘steeds’ are retained in the 
final version) it will cover ‘leaving the reins slack so that the 
horse can get the bit between his teeth.’ It seems very likely, 
then, that Theobald was quite right, though not in the way he 
meant; that Shakespeare first thought of some prosy remarks for 
the poor Duke in the style of the text he was working from, and 
then, feeling this was rather thin, and being reminded of another 
image in the text which he had himself used elsewhere, dragged 
that in as well by two small emendations, and felt he had cheered 
the thing up as much as possible. I don’t say the result is 
uniquely ^ood poetry, but when Shakespeare’s mind is working 
at high pressftre we have not the same chance of seeing what it 
is doing. 


Another example of this that deserves mention occurs in a 
Sonnet I have already discussed (p. 54): 

Be where you list, your charter is so strong 
That you yourself may privilege your time 
To what you will, to you it doth belong 
Yourself to pardon of self-doing crime. 

Do what you will is the emendation, making a parallel with Be 
where you list, and giving the lines the sing-song, chivalrous, and 
detached air of a Sonnet by Sir Philip Sidney. So that this is 
very like the preceding example; Sidney had set the fashion 
Shakespeare was writing in; he would naturally conceive the 
lines as directly rhythmical, after his model, and then improve 
them into the larger, more revealing, and grammatically more 
fertile scheme which has come down to us. 

It is amusing to see that in taking this view of eighteenth- 
century emendation I am forestalled by Pope : 

Wondering he gazed : when lo a Sage appears, 

By his broad shoulders known, and length of ears. 

{Dunciad, iii. 27.) 

Pope supplies for this a tremendous piece of textual criticism in 
the notes, ‘partly by Mr. Theobald,’ which moves ears back to 
‘years,’ plumes itself very much on its sagacity, misses the point 
about donkeys altogether, and explains ‘ That Mr. Settle was old 
is most certain, but he was (happily) a stranger to the Pillory.’ 
(Which in any case would only have made his ears shorter.) ‘ It 
is, therefore, amazing that Mr. Curll himself should overlook it.’ 
But evidently this process is more valuable than Pope thought ; 
the emendation would throw a great deal of light on his line, if 
any were needed, by insisting on the subdued pun which gives 
it its point, its innocent and colloquial ease. 

This example may make plain, too, that I do not think Shake- 
speare necessarily wrote down the emendations I have been 
applauding, any more than Pope wrote ‘years’; in either case 
the simpler version was at the back of the author’s mind, and 
made part of his reason for finding the line satisfactoty. 

In talking about Chaucer (p. 63), I said that, iif’ general, puns 
and verbal connections of sound were unimportant and not to be 


sought out; and now, you will say, I have been using them to 
explain cruces in Shakespeare. Alas, you have touched on a sore 
point; this is one of the less reputable aspects of our national 

A quibble is to Shakespeare [Johnson could not but confess] 
what luminous vapours are to the traveller ; he follows it at all 
adventures ; it is sure to lead him out of his way and sure to en- 
gulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his 
blind. ... A quibble was for him the fatal Cleopatra for whom 
he lost the world, and was content to lose it. 

Nor can I hold out against the Doctor, beyond saying that life 
ra^;i very high in those days, and that he does not seem to have 
lost the world so completely after all. It shows lack of decision 
and will-power, a feminine pleasure in yielding to the mesmerism 
of language, in getting one’s way, if at all, by deceit and flattery, 
for a poet to be so fearfully susceptible to puns. Many of us 
could wish the Bard had been more manly in his literary habits, 
and I am afraid the Sitwells are just as bad.^ 

It might, I think, be possible to relate a poet’s attitude to life 
with his attitude to words, as apart from what he said with them, 
but there would be many other things to be decided first. To 
relate a taste for puns with the author’s sexual constitution, one 
would have to consider what a variety of notions of manliness 
have held sway; that curious controversy in which the Lords 
Tennyson and Lytton, each with conviction and upon clear 
grounds, denied one another’s virility; the tears and swoonings 
through which that of Troilus was asserted; the later Puritan 
notion that it is manly to be indifferent to sexuality ; the vital and 
virile rhythm of American music which springs from a hypno- 
tised abandonment of self to the exact rhythms of machinery; 
the precisely similar extravagant gestures with which the Gany- 
medes and the Titans of Michael Angelo express respectively 
their yielding and their power. 

But, perhaps, to say that an interest in puns is not virile is a 
divergence from the Doctor’s opinion; the eighteenth-century 
use of ‘ quibble ’ seems to mean that a pun cannot carry much 

^ All this maff seem tediously facetious, but the subject of subdued puns is, 
I think, puzzling and hard to approach directly. 


feeling, and is a petty (rather than a womanish) pleasure. Some 
of the early conttcdies may justify this, but on the whole it is due 
to lack of historical sense ; Johnson had been bored by charades 
recited in coffee-houses, and thought the Elizabethan pun was 
the same. But Shakespeare’s interest in the sound relationships 
between words was in no degree detached from his interest in 
their total meaning; however he arrived at a word he appre- 
hended it, and the grasp of his imagination was such that, having 
arrived at a term by a subsidiary quibble, while his attention was 
yet giving sufficient weight to the matter mainly in hand, he 
could work the elaboration due to the quibble into the total 
order. When I said that subdued puns were not the most im- 
portant objects of analysis, I meant that very few poets are*so 
sensitive to the sounds of language, that very few poets can afford 
so to exploit their sensitivity to the sounds of language, and that 
perhaps no other poet has been able to concentrate, on to the 
creative act of a moment, such a range of intellectual power. 

I shall now mount the second of the hobby-horses with which 
I am ending off this chapter, and examine the way Shakespeare 
uses a combination of ‘and’ and ‘of.’ 

In so far as it is valuable for a poet to include several rhythms, 
grammatical forms, or shades of meaning in a single phrase, those 
linguistic forms are likely to be most convenient which insist on 
no definite form of connection between words and allow you 
simply to pass on from one to the other. Thus the word ‘ and ’ 
will be convenient if you are bringing forward two elements of a 
situation, conceived as of the same logical type; consider the 
word ‘ and ’ in my last sentence ; it could have been ‘ so that they ’ 
or ‘but.’ The word ‘of’ will be convenient if the two elements 
are related to the situation differently, and stand in some asym- 
metrical relation to one another. A mild form of this vague use 
of ‘of’ may be shown in a very normal and grammatical passage 
by Mr. Eliot : 

I can sometimes hear 

Behind a public bar in Lower Thames Street 
The pleasant whining of a mandoline. 

(The Waste Land) 


Taking the last line as unit, whining is the main noun, and the 
other words are draped about it, but reading the whole sentence 


with the slight emphasis necessary on the ends of lines, the 
grammatical skeleton becomes ‘ I . . . heard ... a ihandoline,’ and 
whining is almost an adjective like pleasant. If I may destroy 
Mr. Eliot’s poetry for a moment, and read ‘ The pleasant, whining 
sort of mandoline,’ it is evident that mandoline becomes the real 
object of hear, Elizabethan verse continually does this; it com- 
bines pomp of syntax with immediacy of statement : 

» What means (the warning of) this trumpet’s sound ? 

Till, swollen with (cunning of) a self-conceit . . . 

{Spanish Trag.y l. ii. 192, Faust, ProL) 

King Lear is more desperate in his variety of uses for the 
genitive : 

Blasts and fogs upon thee. 

The untented woundings of a father’s curse 
Pierce every sense about thee. 

{Lear^ i, iv. 320.) 

The wounds may be cause or effect of the curse uttered by a 
father] independently of this, they may reside in the father or his 
child. The curse, indeed, might be uttered against the father by 
the child, and certainly the king would have meant this if he had 
thought of it. All the meanings arrived at by permuting these 
versions make up one single-minded curse; any pains Lear has 
felt or is still to feel, any pains Cordelia has felt or is still to feel, 
as an effect or cause whether of this curse on Goneril or of his 
previous curse on Cordelia, or of Goneril’s implied curses on him, 
all these give him good reason for cursing Goneril with the same 
pains in return; and if any pains in Goneril are to be cause or 
effect of any of these cursings, so much the better, let them pierce 
her. These pains are already all that he can foresee from the 
cursing of fathers; they, therefore, mean also ‘all the curses that a 
father can impose on his child.’ ^ 

The uses of ‘and,’ though no less various, are less distinct. 
The reader may be forced to give it an extended meaning when 

^ Critics have objected that verbal ingenuity here is very irrelevant to the 
feelings of Lear. Anyway all Shakespearean heroes must be supposed super- 
humanly articulate ; but Lear in particular, I think, did enjoy the wealth 
and force of Ais language ; it was all he had left, and he felt it had magical 
power. However,^ I have cut a sentence which claimed double meanings in 
untented ; as the word is put next to wounds it is probably limited to the medical 


it connects two words which are mutually exclusive unless applied 
in different ways. For example, Othello speaks of 

the flinty and Steele Cooch of Warre. (i. iii. 231). 

A soldier’s couch is flinty in that he lies on pebbles, steel in that 
his weapons are beside him. This satisfies the suggestion that 
the adjectives apply in different ways, which is conveyed by their 
diflterent forms and by the fact that one of them has a capital ; 
both suggest the hardness both of external circumstance and of 
the inner man that confronts it (so that the first ‘ both ’ mirrors 
the second); and, taking them together as a unit, they are the 
flint and steel with which you fire your gun. I hope the reader 
will agree with me that the word ‘and’ here is standing for three 
different ways of fitting words into a structure. 

I propose to consider a linguistic form common in Shakespeare’s 
verse, and typical of his method; ‘the (noun) and (noun) of 
(noun)’; in which two, often apparently quite different, words 
are flung together, followed by a word which seems to be in- 
tended to qualify both of them. This implies that they are both 
early attempts (the result of two casual shots) at saying the same 
thing; in fact, the whole unit often takes a singular verb; and 
hence their main meaning, it is implied, is a sort of highest com- 
mon factor of the two of them. This implies, again, a statement 
that they are not prime to one another; thus, 

were ’t to renounce his Baptisme, 

All Seales, and Symbols of redeemed sin : 

{Othello^ II. iii. 356.) 

is a reflection about the character of a symbol) that it depends 
on the fixture or sealing down of an association, and is thus 
analogous to an act of faith. Similarly, 

All bond and privilege of Nature breakc (Cor., v. iii. 25.) 

states the two opposite ends of the idea of contract, which is not 
such a trivial intellectual feat as it may appear. It is in part this 
sort of subsidiary meaning that critics are bearing in mind when 
they praise the comprehensiveness of Shakespeare’s o^itlook upon 
the world. Bond and privilege here is in effect a single word 
which combines two opposite notions; I must refer the reader 


to my seventh chapter for a discussion of such words and their 
importance to poetry. * 

And since this form demands that the reader should find a 
highest common factor of its first two nouns, it implies that he 
must open his mind to all their associations, so that the common 
factor may be as high as possible. That is, it is a powerful means 
of forcing him to adopt a poetical attitude to words. 

* but ’tis not so above ; 

There, is no shuffling, there the Action lyes 
In his true Nature, and we ourselves compell’d 
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults 
To give in evidence. {Hamlet, iii. hi. 63.) 

You put your hand down the hole, feel at the rat’s head and face 
[forehead] in an attempt to drag it out, and then [teeth] it bites 
back at you.^ ‘ God will force us to bring our faults out into the 
open, however much we struggle.’ A forehead, besides being a 
target for blows, is used both for blushing and frowning. ‘ We 
will be ashamed and a little indignant at having to confess such 
things.’ Teeth, besides being a weapon of offence, are used in 
making confessions, and it is a mark of contempt, I suppose for 
your weakness, even where you might seem most dangerous, that 
you are struck there. ‘We must confess all in plain words, or 
God will give us the lie in our teeth.’ Perhaps, too, the forehead 
covers the brain where the fault is planned, while the teeth are 
used (whether for talking or biting) in carrying it out, so that 
they stand for the will to sin and the act of sin respectively. Or, 
making a fair attempt to give o/its grammatical meaning, so that 
the teeth and forehead are not ours but our faults ’ ; ‘ We shall have 
to start giving evidence at the very bottom of our faults, and go 
right on up to the top where they are at their most striking and 
important.’ Teeth are a naked part of the skeleton and the 
foreheads bone is near the surface; ‘The Last Judgment will 
give little or no margin to the flesh; we shall have to go right 
down to bedrock in turning up our faults.’ 

This is all very fanciful and irrelevant, the reader may think. 

^ Miss M. C. Bradbrook pointed out that forehead chiefly meant impertin- 
ence to Shakispeare ; and teeth no doubt would chiefly suggest the ‘ lie in 
your teeth * situa^on of challenge. But after this simplification you have 
still to interpret the phrase as a syntactical unit ; and it has much the same 
effect, I think, whether you put these ideas in or leave them out. 


But what is relevant to these notes of the material for rhetoric, 
this poetry by physiological shorthand ? All we are given is two 
parts of the body and the Day of Judgment; these have got to be 
associated by the imagination of the reader. There is no im- 
mediate meaning, and in spite of this there is an impression of 
urgency and practicality, and being in the clutches of an omni- 
potent ferret. Such an effect must rely, not perhaps on flashes 
of fancy in the directions I have indicated; I doubt if such opcur 
in the normal reader; but on a sense that the words themselves, 
in such a context, include, as part of the way in which they are 
apprehended, the possibility of flashes of fancy in the directions 
I have indicated. The words are intended for the stage; they 
certainly convey something to an audience ; and there is no time 
for them to convey anything more definite than this before the 
soliloquy has swept on to another effect of the same kind. 

In this last example the genitive may be said to have been used 
normally, if our faults have been personified so as not to be very 
distinguishable from ourselves; at least, it has the same sense for 
each of the first two nouns. The following case, though the 
sense is plain enough, is more complex. ‘The new deputy is 
very strict ’ 

Whether it be the fault and glimpse of newness 

{Measure for Measure ^ i. ii. 59.) 

‘or because he thinks it best to show his strength at once, and 
make sure of his prestige.’ The fault of newness would be simple, 
and have for grammar, ‘this mistake isn’t the deputy’s fault, it’s 
Newness’s fault.’ The glimpse of newness would be fairly simple ; 

‘ He is dazzled with the brightness of his position, and still self- 
conscious, with a suggestion of peeping, because of its novelty.’ 
The first ‘of’ would thus mean ‘belonging to,’ the second, 
‘caused by.’ But to impose one on top of the other puts the 
reader at some distance from either meaning; makes fault convey 
a meaning of ‘discontinuity’ (the sense ‘gap’ which led to the 
geological use) so as to be more like glimpse, glimpse suggest 
‘spying’ and a wilful blindness so as to be more like/awft, and 
leaves various ways of making them both grammar flftating about 
in one’s mind; ‘this isn’t the deputy’s fault, it’^'the fault of his 
glimpse of newness’; or separating 'the' fault from the rest of 


the phrase, ‘ This is original sin coming out, as it often does when 
a man changes his circumstances/ ^ 

Shakespeare is fond of this double use of a preposition, which 
a reader is not supposed to be sufficiently conscious of to think 
witty or precise : 

To keep her constancy in plight and youth 
Outliving beauty’s outward . . . 

{Troilus and Cressida, ill. ii. 173.) 

Do, with like timorous accent and dire yell 

As when, by night and negligence, the fire 

Is spied in populous cities. {Othello^ i. i. 76.) 

‘ Her constancy to the thing she has plighted in its original state 
of vigour*; ‘caused by negligence during the night-time/ But 
I think there is more in it than this; if the prepositions were 
being used in quite distinct senses, one for each word, the effect 
would be a conscious one, and irrelevant to the dramatic moments 
concerned. Her constancy may be thought of as in a state of 
being continually plighted (kept in a pickle of virtue) so long as 
she is in a state of mind to keep the original plighting) so that the 
alternative meaning of in does something rather like transforming 
a surface integral to a volume integral, and insists on the spirit 
rather than the letter. Similarly, in the other example, the fire 
may have spread ‘by reason* of night as well as of negligence) 
because the fire occurred at night, there was nobody about to see 
it beginning; or, attaching the two to spiedy the fire might be 
found because it showed up in the dark, and because there were 
then idlers about in the streets to notice it. The most prominent 
thing about the line is the gusto and Miltonism with which lago 
now releases his accumulated excitement into an act; the am- 
biguity gives scale to his rhythms. I know of no case where 
Shakespeare has made a flat pun out of a preposition, one mean- 
ing to each noun ; I believe that (if done at all seriously) to be a 
unique property of the Augustans. 

In Shakespeare*s great parades of associations the attendants 
are continually quarrelling among themselves, on the pattern of 

Glend. When I was born . . . 

The heifvens were all on fire, the earth did tremble. 

Hotspur. O'Jthen the earth shook to see the heavens on fire 
And not in fear of your nativity. (i Henry IV, y ill. i. 24.) 


Consider with this in mind : 


That I did love the Moore, to live with him, 

My downeright violence, and storme of Fortunes, 

May trumpet to the world. {Othello^ i. iii. 249.) 

It is after the pattern we have considered, except that the adjec- 
tive throws a new term into the calculation; it qualifies either 
violence or violence and storme, and thus tends to detach violence 
from fortunes. On the normal pattern of qualifies both nouns, 
but it was Desdemona who was violent, after all (she does not 
become young and helpless till she is married), precisely because 
she stood up to, answered back, and in part created her Fortune 
which was stormy. The Folio’s comma, which heightens the 
civil war in the line by dividing it in two, is usually omitted 
by editors, I think wrongly; both rhythm and grammar 
should be rocking and tempestuous, in a precise echo to the 

The normal form I am considering, then, is liable to break up 
at the join between the first two nouns, which I had claimed 
would carry so many implications. But this reaction seldom goes 
the whole way ; the form itself is so strong that its elements hold 
together. It is strongest, evidently, when the two first nouns are 
almost synonyms, and in this form, partly because it is such a 
satisfactory form of padding, partly because it appeals to the 
dictionary interest in words that was so strong in the Eliza- 
bethans, Shakespeare uses it very often ; it has been drummed, 
therefore, into the ears of his readers till they take it for granted. 

Within the book and volume of my brain. 

Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper. 

The flash and outbreak of a fiery mind. 

The pales and forts of reason. 

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. 

The whips and scorns of time. 

The natural gates and alleys of the body. 

In these random cases either word gives the sense alone. This 
shows a pride in the possession of language such a% appears in 
people talking to a specialist on some subject of which they have 
a little knowledge ; they make haste to use all the technical terms 


they can remember. Such examples as I have noted in Shake- 
speare’s predecessors are of this form : 

She sent him letters, which myself perus’d, 

Full-fraught with lines and arguments of love. 

Preferring him before Don Balthazar. 

{The Spanish Tragedy^ ii. i. 86.) 

Fa. Tell me what is that Lucifer thy lord? 

Me. Archregent and commander of all spirits. 

{Faustus^ I. iii.) 

I cut my arm, and with my proper blood 
Assure my soul to be great Lucifer's, 

Chief lord and regent of perpetual night. (i* v.) 

But the form is rare before Shakespeare, and even in Shakespeare 
before Hamlet \ it is not likely to be sought for by an author 
unless he wants to hold a thought in the reader’s mind while he 
plays round its implications, unless, in fact, he feels it is likely 
to be useful in the way I am describing. Consider 

But we are old, and on our quickest decrees 
Th’ inaudible, and noiseless foot of time 
Steals, ere we can effect them. 

{AlVs Well, V. iii. 40.) 

These two adjectives might seem to be used as synonyms, from 
a dictionary interest only, with no stress on their difference. The 
first is from Latin (external and generalised), the second, native 
(with immediate gusto and a sense of textures) ; in English this 
difference is often fruitful ; but here it is overshadowed by nega- 
tion and they take effect as the same sort of word. 

And yet, rather as two forces almost in the same line may have 
a small resultant in quite another direction, so the slight differ- 
ence between the meanings of inaudible and noiseless points 
towards curious places, and is accepted as evidence of the fan- 
tastic broodings of melancholy. ‘ Not only can nobody hear the 
foot of time, but it actually never makes a sound; even when 
safely alone, like a clock in an empty room, even at its head- 
quarters, it is silent; you might be hearing in a different way 
sounds outside the human range, and yet this all-important 
reality, this*devouring giant, would make no sound.’ Certainly 
this implicatior is very far in the background, but I think it was 
because Shakespeare was ready to use such differences that he 


was ready to use two contiguous synonyms. The earlier, more 
naive dictionary interest (Hear, oh ye kings; give ear, oh ye 
princes) has a different purpose; it does not repeat the two 
words together, it uses them as an excuse to repeat the rhythm 
of a whole phrase.^ 

Shakespeare's fondness for such pairs of words is fundamental 
to his method, and in particular is the cause of the form I am 
considering. It is because he so often put down two almost 
synonymous nouns that it became natural to add a qualifying 
noun so as to connect them; it is because, when he used this 
form, he so often made the first two nouns act as synonyms, that 
it comes by habit to be so strong a unit in his reader’s mind. 
Since, however, the two words are here adjectives and not nouns, 
this example serves another purpose ; it shows the normal form 
grown so strong as to be able to tear two synonyms apart and 
make them different parts of speech. For the Folio’s comma 
makes the inaudible in some degree a noun, as a Miltonism for 
destiny, and the part of Saxon to its Latin is then played by 
foot or time. 

Apart from making the two first words synonyms, the strongest 
way to hold them together would be to make them an oxymoron, 
with the first acting as adjective to the second. 

^ In the dead wast and middle of the night. 

{Hamlety i. ii. 198.) 

Wast seems to be a pun on ‘ waste,’ ‘ waist,’ and ‘ vast ’ ; if ‘ waist,’ 
it has a strong common factor with middle \ if ‘vast,’ the connec- 
tion could be that the night seems longest when you are in the 
middle of it; if ‘waste,’ the connection is that people are about 
at the two ends of a nighty but the middle is a desolate region put 
to no good. If I say that any of these connections in itself con- 
stitutes an oxymoron, I am making philosophical assumptions 
such as I would wish to avoid, but they are easily treated as such 
in paraphrasing — ‘in the dead and wasted middle of the night.’ 
Or one may make ‘dead’ a noun like the other two (‘in the dead 

^ I should have mentioned the legal habit of putting synonyms one after 
another in a document in case the other man claims a difference later. The 
historical reason why these stock pairs are so often Norman '.nd Saxon is 
not because it’s pretty but to make sure that both groups understood. I 
have an idea that Mr. George Rylands was the first to point this out fin 
Words and Poetry), 


of night*), or the idea may be ‘during one of those periods of the 
night which seem vast and yet are only a small paiet of the middle 
of it,* so that ‘dead waste’ or ‘dead vast* can be separated from 
night and made to stand alone. The pun on ‘waist* is not so 
much a meaning as a force holding together wast and middle) it 
may perhaps personify the night as one of the terrible women of 
destiny. The difference between Shakespeare’s and Milton’s 
use of a phrase like ‘the dead vast* is simply that Shakespeare 
always gave it an alternative, more usual construction to fall 
back on. 

As a rule, these two forces of oxymoron and tautology are both 
operative in attaching the first norm to the second and the third; 
but they do not attach it as closely to either as the second is 
attached to the third, and it has some life on its own. I shall list 
a few examples showing the action of the resulting ambiguity. 

Hor. In what particular thought to work, I know not: 

But in the grosse and scope of my Opinion, 

This boades some strange erruption to our State. 

{Hamlet^ I. i. 68.) 

‘Taking it as a whole* {in the gross\ ‘judging from the whole 
unanalysed lump in my mind, as fully as my coarse powers allow* 
{in the gross of my opinion)^ and ‘ expressing only a personal and 
limited view* {in the scope of my opinion), 

Hamlet does the same in prose : 

... to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show the very 
age and body of the time his form and pressure. 

{Hamlety in. ii. 26.) 

The age is apparently the same as the body of the timey but the 
normal form pairs it with bodyy so as to carry a sense of ‘ condition 
of body,* for instance, how old it is. I quote this mainly to show 
the group being referred to in the singular. 

The two nouns may achieve their variety in unity by giving 
two different metaphors for the same idea. Thus, ‘ If we put all 
our eggs in one basket . . .* 

. . . therein should we read 
The very Bottome, and the soule of Hope, 

The very list, the very utmost Bound 

Of all our fortunes. (i Henry IV,, iv. i. 50.) 



This is obviously a case of dictionary interest, which uses the 
display of synonyms as an excuse for repeating the rhythm of a 
whole phrase. This fact, and the capitals, tend to make Bottome 
separate from soule of Hope^ but, on the other hand, the fact that 
very is only left out before soul makes the line seem one phrase. 
Soule here may be a pun on ‘sole,’ ‘our one hope is being risked,’ 
or it may mean ‘ the very essence of hope,’ or, stressing the verb, 
‘we would be looking into the eyes of Hope, having its true 
character brought home to us’; whereas Bottome either means 
‘the nadir of our fortunes,’ taking it as apart from Hope^ or just 
‘all the hope we have in stock’; we see the bottom of the tub of 
Hope, as if it was so much treacle. 

Doubt as to the interpretation of a metaphor may be common 
to both words, without sharing its alternatives between them, and 
still will attach itself to this ambiguity of the normal form : 

Tell her my love, more noble than the world 
Prizes not quantitie of dirtie lands. 

The parts that fortune hath bestowed on her : 

Tell her, I hold as giddily as Fortune : 

But ’tis that miracle, and Queen of lems 
That nature pranks her in, attracts my soule, 

(Twelfth Night, ii. iv. 8o.) 

Fortune might be said to have bestowed on her her looks as well 
as her estate, so it is not clear whether the miracle is her soule or 
her body. It is true that the Folio punctuation, by firmly con- 
necting parts with lands, makes parts unlikely to include beauty, 
and so gem unlikely to mean soule \ but arguments from punctua- 
tion are doubtful, and the final phrase attracts my soule gives 
the nineteenth-century editors some excuse for their more 
spiritual interpretation. The Duke’s rather dismally self-centred 
condition gives no help either; he is in the mood to make a high- 
toned remark about admiring the soul, and also in the mood to 
say it is essential for his soul to have things about it that it likes 
the look of; or (putting it more generously) he is including her 
character and her looks in a single act of admiration. Thus he is 
a fair case for ambiguity. 

There is also the doubt normal to this form as 1:o whether 
nature pranks her in a miracle or in a miracle of gem^, and whether 
either of these is the same as a queen of gems. These independent 


doubts are easily connected. To take miracle alone is more like a 
catalogue of compliments, to take miracle witA queen is more 
cumbrous and excited; has to be said with a hushed and naive 
air because the two words are so much heavier and stronger than 
the word gems which is to connect them. Thus, the first shows 
detachment and admiration, the second, reverence and humility; 
a distinction which is perhaps the meaning of, rather than similar 
to, that between beauty and character. Or you can make miracle 
and miracle of gems correspond to her beauty, queen of gems to 
her character. 

The ambiguities of this form may convey a variety of feelings 
on the subject in hand. Poor Bertram, in this example, has been 
bekten down into civility and a readiness to marry when he is 

When I consider 

What great creation, and what dole of honour 

Flies where you bid it . . . {AlVs Welly ii. iii. 170.) 

What creation of honour is courtly and reserved, but standing 
alone, as the intervening ^whaV may suggest, creation becomes 
more abject, and means ‘you make and break people according 
to your liking.’ On the other hand, taking great creation and dole 
together, and feeling for a connection, one passes from the idea 
of ‘doling out’ to the idea of ‘doleful’; ‘how terribly the sort 
of honour you give people weighs them down ’ ; he is overheard, 
as it were, muttering under his breath. 

Or the subsidiary meaning may act as pure dramatic irony, 
without the knowledge of the speaker. 

Or that perswasion could but this convince me. 

That my integritie and truth to you, 

Might be affronted with the match and waight 
Of such a winnowed purity in love : 

{Troilus and Cressida, iii. ii. 176.) 

Affronted may mean ‘confronted’ (it never does elsewhere); 
match may refer to pairing things and seeing that they are equal ; 
waight may convey equal strength, adequate solidity, and perhaps 
capacity for waiting. Or affronted may mean ‘offended,’ with a 
suggestion of battles; match may refer to single combats and to 
the matches which convey flames (the word, of course, is older 
than Lucifer matches, and applied in particular to touching off 


guns); waight may remember his long waiting for her in Chau- 
cer’s version ; aiifd his love is to be winnowed by adversity. It is 
not quite true to say this is meant as unconscious; as the com- 
batants in this play use sexual metaphors for fighting, so the 
lovers (more naturally) use terms of war; of this, no doubt, they 
are aware, but there is a painful irony as to the interpretation : 

Tro. I am as true as truth’s simplicity 
And simpler than the infancy of truth. 

‘In that I’ll war with you,’ replies Cressida; and, indeed, she 
defeats him. 

‘The (noun) and (noun) of (noun)’ has kept its head above 
water in a variety of difficult circumstances ; we may take a last 
look at it being submerged by collision with a stronger form. 

My vouch against you, and my place i* th’ state 
Will so your accusation overweigh, 

That you shall stifle in your own report. 

And smell of calumnie. 

(Measure for Measure^ ii. iv. 155.) 

Report and smell of calumny is the familiar form; the first two 
nouns Latin and Saxon respectively; 0/ with a fair variety of 
meaning. ‘You will stifle in the calumnious report you have 
yourself set about, in the social situation of accusation and self- 
righteousness you have yourself caused.’ But this model collides, 
owing to the short half-line, with another model that makes smell 
a verb ; there is no great diflFerence of meaning, except that the 
new version is rather less rude to her; to ‘smell of calumny’ 
might happen to any one, and does not seem so deserved a fate 
as that of stifling in one’s own smelL 
Praise of the victorious model will add dignity to the old one. 
This short half-line is used to repeat briefly, with a calming or 
clinching effect, what has been said elaborately in several lines 
before. ‘While determined, I do not wish to nag; I will stop 
talking now on the understanding that I have made my point 
sufficiently clear.’ It should use less abstract and elaborate, more 
earthly and immediate terms, with an air of comradely appeal to 
the good sense of the person addressed. ‘ I suppose I ^an come 
down to your level now that I have asserted myself ;f what I mean 
is quite simple really, I can say it in four words.’ There should 


be an implication that he has poured out into language the energy 
of his judgment, and can now put it finally (having found out in 
the course of talking just what it implies) on the last wave of his 
desire for expression. ‘In short . . 

But cruel are the Times, when we are Traitors 
And do not know ourselves ; when we hold Rumour 
From what we feare, yet know not what we feare, 

But float upon a wilde and violent Sea 

Each way, and move. {Macbeth, tv, ii. i8.) 

It is as a variety of this model that the last word (which so 
many commentators have wished to alter) may be justified. He 
h^s described, as one living through such a time, its blind agita- 
tion and disorder, and then, calmed by the eflFort of description, 
gazes out over the Sea with a hushed and equable understanding; 
so that the whole description is called back into the mind, re- 
membered as in stillness or as from a distance, by the last word. 
And here is being used, as so often, to connect two different ways 
of saying, two different attempts at saying, the same thing; but 
in this case one way takes over four lines of packed intensity and 
elaborate suggestion; the other takes one word, perhaps the 
flattest, most general, and least coloured in the English language. 
I am glad to close this chapter with so rich an example of an 
imposed wealth of meaning. 


ambiguity of the third type, considered as a verbal matter, 
Jtx. occurs when two ideas, which are connected only by being 
both relevant in the context, can be given in one word simul- 
taneously. This is often done by reference to derivation; thus 
Delilah is 

That specious monster, my accomplished snare. 

The notes say: Speciotis, ‘beautiful and deceitful’; monster^ 
‘ something unnatural and something striking shown as a sign* of 
disaster’; accomplished, ‘skilled in the arts of blandishment and 
successful in undoing her husband.’ The point here is the sharp- 
ness of distinction between the two meanings, of which the 
reader is forced to be aware ; they are two pieces of information, 
two parts of the narrative ; if ingenuity had not used an accident, 
they would have required two words. 

The meanings of a pun of the third type may, of course, be 
‘connected’ in this sense, that their being put into one word 
produces an additional effect ; thus here they are used to concen- 
trate feeling upon the single line in the speech, focussed in this 
way to hold all Samson’s hatred, when he expresses his grievances 
against her. Indeed, if the pun is producing no additional effect 
it has no function and is of no interest ; and you may say that, in 
so far as an ambiguity is justified, it is moved upwards or down- 
wards on my scale out of the third type. If this were true, the 
type would gain in theoretical importance but contain no ex- 
amples of interest to the reader of poetry. But I think it is not 
true, because the matter is complicated by questions of conscious- 
ness, of the direction of the reader’s attention, of the interaction 
between separated parts of his mind, and of the means by which 
a pun can be justified to him. To begin with, I should call it an 
ambiguity of this type when one is mainly conscious of the pun, 
not of its consequences. There may be an additional meaning, 
given because two meanings have been fitted into ene word, 
which takes effect only when the reader is attending, not to it, 
but to the fact that they have been fitted into one word, so that 



one could call it a deduction from the fact that they have been 
fitted into one word. » 

Ye, who appointed stand, 

Do as you have in charge, and briefly touch 
What we propound, and loud that all may hear. 

{Paradise Lost, vi. 565.) 

It is a bitter and controlled mood of irony in which Satan gives 
this address to his gunners; so much above mere ingenuity that 
the puns seem almost like a generalisation. But here, as for 
ironical puns in general, to be put into the state of mind intended 
you must concentrate your attention on the ingenuity; on the 
way the words are being interpreted both by the gunners them- 
selves and by the angels who have not yet heard of artillery; on 
the fact that they are puns. I want to insist that the question is 
not here of ‘ consciousness ’ of a device as a whole, but of con- 
sciousness of a particular part of it; for one must continually feel 
doubtful about antitheses involving the idea of ‘unconscious,’ 
which, like the infinities of mathematics, may be a convenient 
fiction or a product of definition. In literary matters it covers a 
variety of antitheses, as between taste and analysis, and seeing 
or not seeing the consequences of a proposition ; here I mean by 
the conscious part of the effect the most interesting part, the part 
to which it is most natural to direct your attention. In this sense, 
clear or wide distinction between the two meanings concerned is 
likely to place the ambiguity at the focus of consciousness; 
threaten to use it as a showpiece to which poetry and relevance 
may be sacrificed; make it more obvious to the reader, more 
dependent on being overtly observed, and less intimately an ex- 
pression of sensibility. Thus its most definite examples are likely 
to be found, in increasing order of self-consciousness, among the 
seventeenth-century mystics who stress the conscious will, the 
eighteenth-century stylists who stress rationality, clarity, and 
satire, and the harmless nineteenth-century punsters who stress 
decent above-board fun. 

A pun may be justified to the reader, so long as its two parts 
have not strong associations of their own and do not suggest 
different modes of judgment, by saying two things, both of which 
were relevant and expected, or by saying what is expected in two 
ways which, though different, are seen at once to come to the 


same thing. In such cases the pun requires no extraneous 
apology and wiK receive no particular attention. Or it may name 
two very different things, two ways of judging a situation, for 
instance, which the reader has already been brought to see are 
relevant, has already been prepared to hold together in his mind; 
their clash in a single word will mirror the tension of the whole 
situation. The pun may then be noticed as a crucial point, but 
it will not separate itself from its setting, and will be justified by 
that. The puns I am considering now, indeed most puns tiiat 
are ordinarily recognised as such, fall between these two classes, 
they demand an attention which is not absorbed into the attention 
demanded by the rest of the poem, and are a separate ornament 
on their own. If, then, the reader is not to think them irrelevknt 
and therefore trivial, they require some kind of justification. 

The most obvious way to justify them is by derivation, with 
an air of learning and command of language. The puns from 
Milton I have just quoted acquire their dignity in this way ; when 
a reader can see no similarity between the notions concerned, such 
as a derivation is likely to imply, the pun seems more trivial and 
to proceed from a less serious apprehension of the word’s mean- 
ing. The stock case is Milton’s line about Elijah’s ravens: 

Though ravenous, taught to abstain from what they brought. 

{Paradise Regained y ii. 269.) 

This is ridiculous, but if it had been justified by derivation, as 
perhaps it claims to be, it would have been all right; the meaning 
would be ‘though, as every one admits, so that their name itself 
implies it, this required a serious miracle.’ And as a develop- 
ment from this, a pun may be all right if one is induced to give 
a pseudo-belief, like that in personification, to the derivation ; as 
in Marvell’s delightful line about the tawny mowers. ‘ And now 
when the work is done . . .’ 

And now the careless victors play 
Dancing the triumphs of the hay. 

{Upon Appleton House) 

The ornamental comparison with an army, and the anthropo- 
logical forces {John Barleycorn and so forth) fromrwhich the 
comparison draws its strength, make one delighted with hay^ and 
therefore willing to justify it by a belief that the dance and the 


crop are connected by derivation; a belief which may have been 
shared by Marvell, but which the New English Dictionary does 
not encourage. 

If a pun is too completely justified by its derivation, however, 
it ceases to be an example of the third type, at any rate from the 
point of view of verbal ingenuity. One must distinguish between 
puns which draw some excuse from their derivation and the use 
of technical words outside their own field. 

When thou, poor Excommunicate 
From all the joys of love, shalt see 
The full reward and glorious fate 
Which my strong faith shall purchase me, 

Then curse thine own inconstancy. 

(Carew, To his Inconstant Mistress.) 

Excommunicate is on the verge of being a pun, but all that is done 
is to use its actual meaning so as to bring in other modes of judg- 
ment; if it conveys an ambiguity of the third type, it is not by a 
pun but by an ornamental comparison such as I shall consider in 
a moment. This use of technical words was one of the central 
devices of seventeenth-century poetry; it is usually a matter of 
generalising the idea, or, contrariwise, of taking an unusual par- 
ticular case. Thus the process is much the same as that which 
developed the two meanings of a word from its derivation : but 
in the case of the puns from Milton, for instance, the intervening 
steps have been lost; the two meanings are not thought of as 
proceeding from a single sense; one’s knowledge that they have 
the same origin is a secondary matter; and in the English 
language they are puns. 

Or a pun may not need to be justified by derivation because 
the word itself suggests the connection by which it is justified. 
Thus, in Marvell’s Dialogue between the Resolved Soul and 
Created Pleasure^ the Soul says to Music 

Had I but any time to lose 
On thee I would it all dispose. 

Cease Tempter ! None can chain a mind 
Whom this sweet Chordage cannot bind. 

It is exquisitely pointed, especially in that most cords are 
weaker than chains^ so that the statement is paradox, and these 
chords are impalpable, so that it is hyperbole. But it is not a pure 

loo ojDvniM 1 irno \jr aividiut u 1 1 i 

pun (it is, by the way, justified by derivation) because the mind 
has not to jump the intervening distance; there is a conceit, 
implied by the word itself, upon the strings of musical instru- 
ments, which keeps one from any just irritation (in that ‘ this is 
the wrong way for a poet to be thinking about words’) at having 
to jump at random and too far. 

It is partly this tact which makes Marvell’s puns charming and 
not detached from his poetry; partly something more impalp- 
able, that he manages to feel Elizabethan about them, to imply 
that it was quite easy to produce puns and one need not worry 
about one’s dignity in the matter. It became harder as the 
language was tidied up, and one’s dignity was more seriously 
engaged. For the Elizabethans were quite prepared, for in- 
stance, to make a pun by a mispronunciation, would treat 
puns as mere casual bricks, requiring no great refinement, of 
which any number could easily be collected for a flirtation or 
indignant harangue. By the time English had become anxious 
to be ‘correct’ the great thing about a pun was that it was not a 
Bad Pun, that it satisfied the Unities and what not; it could 
stand alone and would expect admiration, and was a much more 
elegant affair. 

The change, however, was not sharp; I must include, to 
contradict what I have just said, a curious ambiguity from 
Dryden, which seems to show quite the Shakespearean innocence 
as to the means by which a total effect is being obtained. From 
the Death of Amyntas : 

but soon he found 

The Welkin pitched with sullen Clouds around, 

An Eastern Wind, and Dew upon the ground. 

In the resounding intensity of Dryden’s brief and clear state- 
ments of detail, in this Roman use of language, one would not 
look for a sensuous richness of meaning. But pitched means both 
‘blackened as with pitch by the thunderclouds’ and ‘pitched like 
a tent,’ so that the Welkin seems at once muffled and to have come 
lower; perhaps even the two meanings act upon one another, 
and the material of the tent has been tarred and blackened in a 
forlorn attempt to keep out the rain. The effect is not ‘rich,’ 
because even here, where the word has two meanmgs, Dryden is 
using both with a sort of starkness, and they are both drawn 


sharply from the practical world. But it seems to me a remark- 
able case, because it is a full-blown pun, such as the Restoration 
poets would normally have been aware of, and made, if they had 
used it, into an ambiguity frankly of the third type, and yet the 
reader seems meant to absorb it without realising it is there. 
Dryden uses the same turn of phrase elsewhere, and again it is 
a pun: 

, O call that Night again ; 

Pitch her with all her Darkness round ; then set me 
In some far Desert, hemm’d with Mountain Wolves 
To howl about me : Ladies, ii. i.) 

(5Ae*is the Night). He thought, I suppose, of the phrase ‘pitch 
round,’ meaning ‘plant round and blacken,’ not as a pun, nor as 
intended to be analysed, but as an ‘ idiom,’ like the French idioms 
involving words like ‘jeu.’ The attempt then in progress to 
make English ‘regular,’ like French, gives Dryden, I think, other 
puzzling ambiguities of this sort. He seems to claim only to be 
saying one thing, even when one does not know which of two 
things he is saying. Polyphemus thinks Galatea 

More turbulent than is the rising flood. 

And the praised peacock is not half so proud. 

‘The peacock which is commonly praised for its dignity,’ or ‘the 
peacock when it has just been praised’? It is merely a direct 
translation of laudato pavone mperhior\ but the doubt feels larger 
in English than in Latin. 

I shall now list four eighteenth-century puns, in order of in- 
creasing self-consciousness. 

Let such raise palaces, and manors buy. 

Collect a tax, or farm a lottery ; 

With warbling eunuchs fill a licensed stage. 

And lull to servitude a thoughtless age, 

(Johnson, London.) 

Licensed refers, I understand, to the passing of the Licensing 
Act, and a^ds with a peculiarly energetic sneer that they had all 
kinds of goings-on. This, I take it, is a joke, one would say it 
with an accent on licensed and look knowingly at the listener to 


make sure he saw the point. You may say this is only the use of 
a technical word in a generalised sense, but it is not a metaphor; 
the two meanings are different and he means to say both of them. 

Most manfully besiege the patron’s gate, 

And, oft repulsed, as oft attack the great. 

With painful art, and application warm. 

And take at last some little place by storm. 

(Young, Love of Fame, Satire iii.) 

Place is hardly more than an ambiguity by vagueness ; it is only 
because the ornamental comparison is between such different 
activities (one ‘poetical,’ the other prosaic and considered sordid) 
that the political and military meanings of the word seem differ- 
ent enough to be funny. 

The watchful guests still hint the last offence. 

The daughter’s petulance, the son’s expense; 

Improve his heady rage with treacherous skill. 

And mould his passions till they make his will. 

(Johnson, The Vanity of Human Wishes.) 

This is a careful, very conscious pun, which had to be dovetailed 
into its setting ; but still it does not stand out from its setting and 
seem the point of it ; the pun is thought of as of the same kind 
as the other devices employed. Consider the word heady, which 
means both that he was head of the family and that his passions 
soon came to a head ; it is the same sort of pun as the conscious 
one about the will, and yet one can absorb it without recognising 
it at all. 

Where Bentley late tempestuous wont to sport 
In troubled waters, but now sleeps in port. 

(Pope, Dunciad, iv.) 

The pun is sustained into an allegory by the rest of the couplet; 
tempestuous and sport are satirical in much the same way as the 
last word. But here, I grant, we have a simply funny pun; its 
parts are united by derivation indeed, but too accidentally to give 
dignity; it jumps out of its setting, yapping, and bites the Master 
in the ankles. 

The eighteenth-century use of a pun is always worldly; to 
join together so smartly a business and a philosophical notion, a 


nautical and a gastronomical notion, with an air of having them 
in watertight compartments in your own mind (each such subject 
has its rules which save a man from making himself ridiculous, 
md you have learnt them), so that it seems to you very odd and 
igile to have jumped from one to the other — all this belongs to 
the light-weight tattling figure (it is odd it should have been 
Doctor Johnson’s), very ready to form a group and laugh at a 
man in the street, or to ‘smoke’ Sir Roger de Coverley in the 
theatre ; the man quick to catch the tone of his company, who 
knows the talk of the town. In each case, too, the pun is used as 
the climax of a comparison between the subject of the poem, 
something worldly, and a stock poetical subject with which 
:he ^^^riter is less intimately acquainted, which excites feelings 
simpler and more universal. Wit is employed because the 
Doet is faced with a subject which it is difficult to conceive 

The nineteenth-century punster is quite another thing; to 
Degin with he is not rude ; I suppose he came in with the Christ- 
mas Annuals, and supplied something which could be shown to 
ill the daughters of the house, which all the daughters of the 
louse could see (at a glance, without further information) was 
^ery whimsical and clever. Apart from this it is difficult to see ^ 
vhy a man like Hood, who wrote with energy when he was 
•oused, should have produced so much verse of a trivial and un- 
iirected verbal ingenuity; trivial, not because fitting together 
Dhrases wholly separate, drawn from everyday life, or lacking in 
heir own emotional content, but because, so far from ‘being 
nterested in mere words,’ he uses puns to back away from the 
jchoes and implications of words, to distract your attention by 
nsisting on his ingenuity so that you can escape from sinking into 
he meaning. It is partly, perhaps, a result of the eighteenth- 
:entury contempt for ‘ quibbles ’ (so that the verbal acrobat must 
)e desperately unassuming) and partly a result of profound 
changes in the attitude to life of the Duke of Wellington’s Eng- 
and; of a nervous Puritanism which had had quite enough of 
mrest and the Romantic Revival, and felt, if the girls must read 


^ Mr. Edmund Blunden rebuked me by pointing out that Hood had to 
:rind away at the *stufF to make a living ; so the only problem is why his 
>ublic wanted it. 


verse, let us see they get something that cannot possibly go to 

their heads. « 

Not a trout can I see in the place, 

Not a grayling or rud worth the mention, 

And though at my hook 
With attention I look 
1 can ne’er see a hook with a tench on. 

At a brandling once gudgeon would gape, 

But they seem upon different terms now ; 

Have they taken advice 
Of the Council of Nice 
And rejected their Diet of Worms now ? 

For an eel I have learnt how to try 
By a method of Walton’s own showing, 

But a fisherman feels 
Little prospect of eels 
On a path that’s devoted to towing. 

Such virtuosity cannot be despised ; I have warmed to admira- 
tion in copying it out. But the nervous jumping of the style, the 
air of feeling that all feeling (ahem) is a little better avoided, gives 
a sort of airlessness to the humour. One feels a sort of sym- 
pathetic embarrassment about the relation it implies to his public ; 
there may, at any moment, be an anxious hush because just for 
once dear Mr. Hood is not, perhaps, in perfect taste, and at the 
end there must be a sigh of relief because he has avoided the 
pitfalls of his subject very skilfully. A verse of his ‘serious’ 
poetry seems symptomatic : 

And blessed will the lover be 
That walks beneath their light, 

And breathes the love against thy cheek 
I dare not even write. 

But such puns are a sound poetical training; given a subject so 
accepted that even the punster can afford to show feeling, given 
an occasion where he can indulge at once his reader, s’ snobbery 
and his own humanity, how delicately the inst|*ument can be 


How frail is our uncertain breath ! 

The laundress seems full hale, but deatj^ 

Shall her ‘ last linen * bring ; 

The groom will die, like all his kind ; 

And even the stable-boy will find 
This life no stable thing. 

Cook, butler, Susan, Jonathan, 

The girl that scours the pot and pan, 

And those that tend the steeds. 

All, all shall have another sort 
Of service after this — in short 
The one the parson reads. 

One *or, perhaps, two puns are sufficient for a verse ; notice the 
fourth line, from which Shakespeare would have extracted a pun 
on ‘kine,* but which here mentions the groom merely to lead up 
to the stable-boy. Each verse moves about its pun as an axis, and 
yet the result is so lyrical and strong that one wonders if it can 
really be a matter of punning; whether the same effect could 
not be conveyed without an overt pun at all. 

Thou needst not, mistress cook, be told 
The meat to-morrow will be cold 
That now is fresh and hot : 

Ev’n thus our flesh will, by and by. 

Be cold as stone; Cook, thou must die. 

There’s death within the pot. 

I don’t know what his readers thought of this brave piece of 
writing; I wish only to point out that, though of the same form 
as the verses that moved round puns, it has not got any; the two 
associations of flesh take their place. Associations of this kind, 
used in the same way as puns are used, are an important exten- 
sion of the third type, and occur more often than puns themselves. 
I must now consider their action. 

An ambiguity of the third type, then, as a matter concerning 
wliole states of mma, occurs wnen what is said is valid in, refers 
to, several different topics, several universes of discourse, several 
modes of judgment or of feeling. One might call this a general 
ambiguity qf the third type; it includes, for instance, the eight- 
eenth-century puns I have just considered. Now, there are two 
main ways of constructing such an ambiguity. It may make a 


single statement and imply various situations to which it is 
relevant; thus I should call it an ambiguity of this type when an 
allegory is felt to have many levels of interpretation; or it may 
describe two situations and leave the reader to infer various 
things which can be said about both of them; thus I should call 
it an ambiguity of this type when an ornamental comparison is 
not merely using one thing to illustrate another, but is interested 
in two things at once, and is making them illustrate one another 

There is a variety of the ‘conflict* theory of poetry which says 
that a poet must always be concerned with some difference of 
opinion or habit between different parts of his community; 
different social classes, ways of life, or modes of thought; that 
he must be several sorts of men at once, and reconcile his tribe 
in his own person. It is especially to generalised ambiguity of 
the third type that this rather limited formula will apply. 

In the following full-blown ornamental comparison men and 
bees are the two social types, with each of which the poet must 
be in sympathy. 

for so work the honey-bees . . . 

They have a king, and oflicers of sorts ; . . . 

Others, like soldiers, armed in their stings, 

Make boot upon the summer’s velvet buds ; 

Which pillage they with merry march bring home, 

To the tent-royal of their emperor; 

Who, busied in his majesty, surveys 
The singing masons building roofs of gold; 

The civil citizens kneading up the honey ; 

(Henry F., l. ii. 320.) 

and so forth. The commentators have no grounds for deciding 
from this passage, of course, whether Shakespeare knew much or 
little about bees : we can only see what effects he was producing 
by a distorted account of their habits. It is a vision of civil order 
conceived as natural, made at once charming and convincing by 
its expression in terms of creatures so petty and apparently so 
irrelevant. The parallel passage in Vergil uses the same methods ; 
it pokes fun at bees and their pretensions to humanity, and so, 
with a sad and tender generosity, elevates both parties in the 
mind of the reader by making a comparison between them. For 
matters are so arranged that the only things the reader thinks of 


as in common between men and bees are the more tolerable 
things about either of them, and since, by the compactness of the 
act of comparison, a wide variety of things in which bees and men 
are alike have appeared in his mind, he has a vague idea that both 
creatures have been adequately described. Both, therefore, are 
given something of the charm, the suppression of unpleasing 
detail, and the cosiness (how snug they all are down there !) of a 
bird’s-eye view. 

I shall only consider the line about masons,^ Bees are not 
forced by law or immediate hunger to act as masons ; ‘ it all comes 
naturally to them’; as in the Golden Age they sing with plenty 
and the apparent freedom of their social structure. On the other 
harid, bees only sing (indeed, can only sing) through the noise 
produced by their working ; though happy they are not idle ; and 
the human opposition between the pain of work and the waste 
of play has been resolved by the hive into a higher unity, as in 
Heaven. Milton’s ‘the busy hum of men’ makes work seem 
agreeable by the same comparison in a less overt form. 

Roofs are what they are building; the culmination of successful 
work, the most airy and striking parts of it; also the Gothic 
tradition gave a peculiar exaltation to roofSy for instance, those 
magnificent hammer-beam affairs which had angels with A^^-like 
wings on the hammers, as if they were helping in the singing from 
a heavenly choir; and to have masons, building a stone roof, with 
mortar instead of nails, is at once particularly like the methods of 
bees and the most solid and wealthy form of construction. But 
bees build downwards from the roof, so that they are always still 
building the roof, in a sense ; the phrase is thus particularly ap- 
plicable to them, and the comparison with men makes this a 
reckless or impossible feat, arguing an ideal security. In the 
same way, both parties are given wealth and delicacy because the 
yellow of wax is no surface gilding, not even such as in the 
temple of Solomon (built without sound of hammer, in the best 
bee tradition, though it was) shone thickly coated upon ivory, but 
all throughout, as the very substance of their labours, is its own 
pale ethereal and delicious gold. 

^ G. K. Chesterton had praised this line, I think in one of his detective 
stories. He had‘*great powers as a verbal critic, shown mainly by incidental 
remarks, and 1 ought to have acknowledged how much 1 was using them. 



It is sometimes hard to distinguish these ambiguities from the 
corresponding cones of the first type; to distinguish allegories 
which are felt to have many levels of interpretation, or compari- 
sons of which both parties are the subject, from similes which are 
effective from various points of view.^ (It may, indeed, be too 
hard ever to be worth while, but it would still be useful to know 
that the distinction existed.) Perhaps it is enough to say that 
they are more complicated, or have to be thought of as if they 
were. The mind has compartments holding opinions and modes 
of judgment which conflict when they come together; that, in 
fact, is why they are separated; compartments, therefore, which 
require attention, and one is particularly conscious of anything 
that mixes them up. If the two spheres of action of a generalisa- 
tion, or the two halves of an ornamental comparison, involve two 
such compartments which must be thought of in two ways, we 
have the conditions for a general ambiguity of the third type. 

It is this (in some sense conscious) clash between different 
modes of feeling which is the normal source of pleasure in 
pastoral; or, at any rate, in so far as pastorals fail to produce it, 
one may agree with Johnson and call them a bore. 

Thou shalt eat crudded cream 
All the year lasting. 

And drink the crystal stream 
Pleasant in tasting ; 

Whig and whey whilst thou lust 
And brambleberries. 

Pie-lids and pastry-crust, 

Pears, plums, and cherries. 

(Anon., Oxford Book) 

The delicacy of versification here (alliteration, balance of rhythm, 
and so forth) suggests both the scholar’s trained apprehension 
and the courtier’s experience of luxury; but it is of the hr amble- 
berry that he is an epicure; the subject forces into contact with 
these the direct gusto of a ‘swain.’ That all these good qualities 
should be brought together is a normal part of a good poem; 
indeed, it is a main part of the value of a poem, because they are 
so hard to bring together in life. But such a case as this is 
peculiar, because one is made to think of the different people 

^ What I was puzzling over here was a more general version of the objection 
raised by critics, that a pun is not in itself an ambiguity. 


separately ; one cannot pretend to oneself that the author is the 
rustic he is impersonating; there is an element cf wit in the first 
conception of the style. It is a faint and subtle example of the 
mutual comparison which elevates both parties. 

Or the different modes of feeling may simply be laid side by 
side so as to produce ‘ poetry by juxtaposition ’ ; the last verse of 
a poem by Nash (discussed on p. 25) gives a very grand and 
dramatic example of this : 

Haste therefore each degree 
To welcome destiny; 

Heaven is our heritage, 

Earth but a player’s stage. 

Mount we unto the sky ; 

I am sick, I must die — 

Lord, have mercy upon us. 

{Summer^ s Last Will and Testament,) 

The first line of the last three gives the arrogant exaltation of 
the mystic; it has so total and naive a belief in the Christian 
dogma of immortality (a belief, too, in the righteousness of the 
assembled company, or the ease with which such righteousness 
may be attained) as to convey a sort of pagan hubris and triumph ; 
one remembers that it was written for a scene of at once worldly 
and ecclesiastical pomp. The second, sweeping this mood aside, 
gives the mere terror of the natural man at the weakness of the 
body and the approach of death. The third gives the specifically 
Christian fusion of these two elements into a humility so pro- 
found as to make the hope of personal immortality hardly more 
than incidental to a consciousness of the love of God. 

You may say that this is not in any direct sense ambiguous, 
because the elements are isolated statements which succeed one 
another flatly; I should reply that it becomes ambiguous by 
making the reader assume that the elements are similar and may 
be read consecutively, by the way one must attempt to reconcile 
them or find each in the other, by the way the successive ideas 
act in the mind. Or you may say that the experience they convey 
is too strong to be conceived as a series of contrasts ; that one is 
able to reconcile the different elements; that one is not conscious 
of their difference but only of the grandeur of the imagination 
which brought them together. In so far as this is true, the ex- 


ample belongs to my fourth chapter. Or, indeed, you may say 
that two opposites — the fear of death and the hope of glory — are 
here stated together so as to produce a sort of contradiction ; and 
that the humility of the last line then acts as evasion of the con- 
tradiction, which moves it out of the conscious mind into a region 
of the judgment which can accept it without reconciling it. In 
so far as this is true, the example belongs to my seventh chapter. 
But I find myself that I cannot forget the difference, that I read it 
aloud ‘dramatically,’ as a dialogue between three moods. For 
this is a very dramatic device indeed, it is a form of dramatic 
irony. I should say that the most exciting and painful example 
of its use by Shakespeare (in so crude a form) is that scene at the 
end of I Henry IV,, where Falstaff, Harry Percy, and Prince 
Henry (natural gusto, chivalric idealism, and the successful 
politician), in a series of lightning changes, force upon the 
audience in succession their mutually incompatible views of the 

I am not sure, then, that this last example is in the right 
chapter; it may be enjoyed, as it could be read aloud, in various 
ways. The following more limited example is, I think, strictly 
of the type in question ; it is the sort of mutual comparison which 
affects one as a pun. Sacred and profane love (in a devotional 
setting which would consider them very different) are seen as one 
for their generosity, just as men and bees have been seen as one 
for their orderliness. 

Lord what is man ? that thou hast overbought 
So much a thing of nought } 

Love is too kind, I see; and can 

Make but a simple merchant man. 

*Twas for such sorry merchandise 

Bold painters have put out his eyes. 

(Crashaw, Caritas Nimia.) 

In this case, though not always in Crashaw, it seems a matter 
of conscious ingenuity and artifice that Cupid and the love of 
Christ should so firmly be used to interpret one another; he is 
well enough aware that they belong to different worlds, but in the 
generosity of his heart it seems very gay and conveys a sort of 
reliance on the good-humour of Jesus to treat thepi as the same, 
or to explain one by the other. 


The following example may serve to show that Mutual Com- 
parison can degrade instead of elevating both parties. It is not an 
example of Pope’s more poetical satire. The mood is simple, and 
though the mock-heroic scheme as a whole has a rich imaginative 
background the pleasure intended here seems only that due to the 
strength and ingenuity of the attack. 

High on a gorgeous seat that far outshone 
Henley’s gilt tub, or Fleckno’s Irish throne, 

Or that where on her Curlls the Public pours 
All-bounteous, fragrant grains, and golden showers. 

Great Tibbald sat. {Dunciad^ ii.) 

Various different situations of mean, vain, and trivial absurdity 
are being concentrated on the hero by comparison. Now, com- 
parison has two uses, one to show that one thing has more or less 
of some quality than another, the other to show that the two 
things are comparable in regard to that quality; an ornamental 
comparison concentrates on the second of these, and it is the 
second of these that Pope is exploiting. It may be worth quoting 
the original Milton : 

High on a Throne of Royal State, which far 
Outshon the wealth of Ormus and of Ind^ 

Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand 
Showers on her Kings Barbaric Pearl and Gold, 

Satan exalted sat. {Paradise Lost^ ii.) 

The comparison with Milton puts Theobald on a ‘ bad eminence ’ 
to start with, and then makes him petty and ridiculous because 
the eminence is too great. His seat is then said to outshine, and 
be similar to, the pillory in which Curll stood, high and lifted up, 
and glittering with bad eggs. The word grains is chosen to 
match pearly and mean rotten food in general ; golden showers may 
mean that people emptied chamber-pots at him from neighbour- 
ing windows. But another world of pettiness and vanity is piled 
on to these two ; curl may be a pun meaning one’s wig, or the 
great structures worn by ladies, since the public is female : and 
then the other throne, than which the hero’s was far more squalid, 
would be the powdering-tub, showers would be hair-oil and grains 
powder. # Perhaps one is more conscious here of the difference 
between the Iwo sorts of Curl than of the difference between the 
powdering-tub and the pillory; I might, therefore, have used 


this example among the puns, and it may help to show the 
connection between what I have called the special and general 
varieties of the same type. 

The point of the joke here is the contrast between the different 
sorts of throne^ or rather between the attitudes to life, the social 
settings, represented by them. But in these last two examples 
the meanings of the symbols are in some degree connected to- 
gether; their difference is included within a single act of worship 
or of satire. 

That they may have almost no inherent connection is clear in 
the following small example by Scott, which merely happens not 
to be a pun. 

Stop thine ear against the singer ; ‘ 

From the red gold keep thy finger ; 

Vacant heart and hand and eye 
Easy live and quiet die. 

Marriage and commerce, avarice and desire, with pert decision, 
are fitted by Sir Walter into a single image. ^ 

The following complete poem by George Herbert keeps the 
symbols apart with the full breadth of the technique of allegory ; 
though the contrast in question is the same as that of the Crashaw 

I gave to Hope a watch of mine : but he 
An anchor gave to me. 

Then an old prayer-book I did present : 

And he an optick sent. 

With that I gave a viall full of tears : 

But he a few green eares : 

Ah, Loyterer! Fie no more, no more Flc bring. 

I did expect a ring. (Herbert, The Temple.) 

One can accept the poem without plunging deeply into its mean- 
ing, because of the bump with which the short lines, giving the 
flat, poor, surprising answer of reality, break the momentum of 
the long hopeful lines in which a new effort has been made; the 
movement is so impeccable as to be almost independent of the 
meaning of the symbols. 

And, indeed, the symbols themselves seem almost to be used 
in a way familiar to the mathematician; as when a selTof letters 

^ Perhaps the charm of the song comes from a more real Ambiguity ; that 
the ‘ moral * is so much opposed to his temperament and even to his style. 


may stand for any numbers of a certain sort, and you are not 
curious to know which numbers are meant becai^e you are only 
interested in the relations between them. One would think that 
an indefiniteness of this sort in poetry must, if it is tolerable, be 
of the first type, and unlikely to repay study; but George 
Herbert, here and elsewhere, has put to extraordinary uses these 
dry and detached symbols. 

To begin with, there is an irony in that he treats only with 
Hope, not with the person or thing hoped for; he has no real 
contact with his ideal but only with its porter. This bitterness 
is common to any interpretation of the symbols. 

You may regard the poem as chiefly about the soul’s irritation 
and despondency at the slowness with which it can achieve per- 
fect union with God ; so that the watch is the brevity of human 
life, and the length of time already spent in waiting (since it 
means both these, a symbol of time, not of time considered either 
as long or short, was wanted) ; the anchor either the certain hope 
of resurrection, or an acquired power of endurance, of holding 
on to the little that has already been gained; tint prayer-book 
prayer and an ordered rule of life ; the optick faith that can look 
up to the sky, or the mystical event of a faint illumination (granted 
to encourage the mystic) and distant view of Heaven ; the viall 
a mark of repentance, or of the pains of desiring perfect union 
with God, or the pains of desiring what has been renounced for 
him; the green eares faint signs of spiritual growth or mystical 
achievement, which carry a distant promise of something better; 
and the ring Omega, the perfect figure of Heaven or of eternity, 
marriage with God, or a halo.^ But, even then, this single mean- 

^ Herbert would not have meant that he himself expected the halo of a 
saint, and would have thought it very bad taste in an interpreter to say that 
he did. I remember how cross I was when a reviewer of my own verse used 
a poem in which I had addressed myself as a twister. He said that this was 
a surprising confession and exactly what was the matter with me. I thought 
that this showed an almost imbecile incompetence on the part of the critic. 
The reason for the clumsiness here is that (as in several other cases) I was 
listing beside the possible primary meanings the suggestions at the back of 
the mind which would reinforce them. The group of ideas about the marriage 
ring and the circle of eternity is strengthened by the idea of the halo ; the 
halo is therefore worth listing, though not as a candidate for the primary 
meaning. It would seem pedantic to distinguish the two things all the time, 
but failure tp do so sometimes makes the analyses look wilder than I intended. 
And yet after all, though I want to give full weight to this point of view, I 
am not sure th^ Herbert did not mean the poem dramatically as said by a 
foolish character, so that the halo could poke up its head quite prominently. 


ing or subject for the poem contains metaphors, hardly less 
important than^itself, either from the earthly state of courtship, 
taking the prayer-book as containing the marriage service and 
the ring as a sexual symbol, perhaps only as employed in that 
ceremony; or from the life of secular ambition, since the 
notion of exchanging presents suggests Court ceremonial and 
modes of obtaining preferment, and the ring might be a mark 
of office. 

I am not sure why the prayer-book was old; it was a traditional 
and venerable thing, he had himself lived according to its rule, 
or wanted to use it in marriage, for a long time; and there may 
be a hint at the religious controversies with which the life of 
secular ambition was then so closely concerned. But it is also 
used to give a sort of humility and reality, something of the con- 
viction of steady prose, to this flat and as it were pastoral exchange 
of gifts. I have already considered the means by which Shake- 
speare makes one accept words imaginatively; the means by 
which Herbert makes one accept them soberly, as things rich in 
their interpretation rather than in their meaning, is harder to 
explain in terms of syntax. 

The symbols, then, apply to three different situations, and 
from this point of view the poem belongs to my third type. But 
of an ambiguity of the third type, whether special or general, the 
reader needs to be conscious, and it seems possible to read this 
poem more simply. It may be read so as to convey, apparently in 
terms of the imagined movements of muscles, a statement of the 
stages of, a mode of feeling about, any prolonged endeavour; so 
that the reader is made to accept them all as alike in these par- 
ticulars, and draw for his sympathy on any experience of the kind 
he may have had. In so far as the lines really act like this, by 
the way, they are much more ‘ like ’ music than are the releasing 
effects of open vowels which are usually given that praise. Now, 
it is an absurd stretching of the idea of ambiguity to call a gener- 
alisation ambiguous because it has several particular cases, and 
in so far as the poem is read in this way its ambiguity, at any rate, 
lies deep within the obscurity of the first type. 

That two such different classes should tumble on tpp of one 
another may seem an important failure of my syste;m; but, as a 
matter of fact, all generalisations act like this. In absorbing 


them, one usually thinks of several particular cases and sees if 
they are true ; this is so both for deep thoughts about life and for 
the propositions of science and mathematics. In so far as a 
generalisation is thought of as the aggregate of the particular 
cases which have been chosen to test it, it may be called an 
ambiguity; in so far as, accepting it, you regard the taking of 
particular cases as a use of it rather than as an unpacking of its 
meaning, it becomes a single proposition. The difficulty arises 
because I am not using the word ‘ambiguity’ in a logical, but in 
a psychological sense; the notion of relevance is necessary to 
pick out cases of it, and it is conceived as always conscious in one 
mode or another. But in this particular case one may fall back 
on a logical distinction, between a class defined by numeration 
(‘ courting the favour of God, of a mistress, and of the King’) and 
a class defined by a property (‘ any course of action which involves 
prolonged endeavour’); a statement about the first class may be 
called an ambiguity, a statement about the second a generalisa- 
tion. From a statement about the first, which appears complex, 
one infers a statement about the second, which appears simple. 
One may say, then, that in ordinary careful reading this poem is 
of the third type, but when you know it sufficiently well, and have 
accepted it, it becomes an ambiguity of the first or (since it is 
verbally ingenious) of the second type. 

It is usual, of course, for a poet to feel his subject is a good one 
because it throws light on matters of another sort, because it 
illustrates life, or what not ; such an unexpressed ambiguity is a 
very normal feature of good poetry. Often what on a first reading 
seems faulty or irrelevant has been put in to insist on this feeling; 
that is not to say it is not genuinely faulty, because unnecessary. 
Dr. Johnson’s objections to Gray’s Cat can, I think, only be 
answered in this way. 

Selina, the cat, is called a nymph, with some violence both to 
language and sense; but there is good use made of it when it is 
done ; for of the two lines — 

What female heart can gold despise ? 

What cat’s averse to fish ? 

the first refc/rs merely to the nymph, and the second only to 
the cat. 


The Doctor complains here that the separation is too neat, 
which is true efiough; but since cat and nymph have been con- 
fused in the first part of the verse, it is a relief to the reason (such 
as he would have been the first to admit into poetry) that they 
should be separated at the end of it. As to the violence done to 
language, it is justified by a sort of honesty, because we are meant 
to be so conscious of it; that we are asked to make that colloca- 
tion is the point of the poem; and Johnson’s pretty distinction 
between merely and only is unfair, because both nymph and cat 
are the main subject. 

If what glistered had been gold, the cat would not have gone into 

the water, and, if she had, would not less have been drowned. 

Here he complains that they are not sufficiently separated, or 
not connected sufficiently verbally. Two logical statements con- 
veying the two morals could easily have been constructed, but to 
put them logically into one, as a generalisation, would require 
a sort of wit different from the sort Gray is using. Certainly it 
gives pleasure when there is a sentence applying to two things 
separately, by a sort of pun ; but then it gives pleasure in another 
way when one has to see that a nonsensical sentence (Johnson 
rightly insists that it is nonsense) is conveying a double meaning. 
For, of course, the clash is not only between nymph and cat but 
between two metaphorical nymphs; between snatching at a 
pleasure, real but dangerous (the cat and the less spiritual 
nymphs), and mistaking a false love for a true one (the more 
spiritual nymphs ) — believing that happiness to be permanent 
which will, in fact, be fleeting. Thus, by the last line of the 
poem, gold, which in the earlier line quoted means chiefly 
‘money’ (‘women are avaricious’), has come to mean ‘of genuine 
value’ (‘what will pay in the long run’). 

This ambiguity enables him to give advice about the pursuit 
of happiness with the sort of reality and good sense which belongs 
to advice about the pursuit of pleasure ; he assumes a charming 
humility in the more spiritual nymphs, and implies that the 
happiness which they seek is a genuine one. I am not sure that 
pleasure and happiness give the right antithesis, but ^fter all he 
was a Christian trained in Pagan literature; he^is playing off 
against one another two different notions of love, two different 


standards of morality, and it is precisely the achievement of this 
which produces the nonsense of which Johnson (K)mplains. 

Johnson’s good sense (a quality urgent for literary critics) was, 
I think, too harsh in this way only, that he would not allow such 
implied comparisons as require to be observed. A comparison, 
in his view, must either be overt or such as could be ignored 
without making nonsense; this is unreasonable, because it 
ignores the way people’s minds in fact work; and as long as the 
Romantics stuck to this issue they could score points off him. 

Allegory, which leads you to think of several particular inter- 
pretations, is nowadays rare and unpopular; but one must re- 
member that, in a form rather different from that of my last 
example, it is among the roots of Elizabethan literature, must 
have come very easily to the readers of that age, and, however 
it may have been abandoned later, was one of their chief impulses 
towards greater subtlety of language. 

Her Majesty fell upon the Reign of Richard Il.y saying am 
Richard the second, know ye not that?’ — ‘Such a wicked imagina- 
tion was determined and attempted by a most unkind Gent., the 
most adorned creature that ever your majesty made.’ — ‘He that 
will forget God will also forget his benefactors ; this tragedy was 
played forty times in open streets and houses.* 

There was always this simple political interest, connecting 
Hamlet with James from their treatment of their mothers, for 
instance, which must have been a continual danger and annoy- 
ance to Shakespeare ; he seems to have evaded its consequences 
himself, but he had to pay fines for the mistakes of others, and 
was acting in the production of Sejanus at Court after which 
Jonson was arrested for Popery and treason. This, though his- 
torically important, seems poetically rather trivial, but the book 
which may be said to have been the origin of Elizabethan litera- 
ture has a more complex and more certainly intended ambiguity. 
In the Shepheardes Calendar the same shepherds appear in pre- 
cisely the three capacities that are treated of in Herbert’s poem, 
as lovers, as courtiers, and as divines. And in the Faerie Queene, 
by the process I have just considered, this variety of meaning has 
been blurred into generalisation, and you can read all kinds of 
political and religious interpretations, indeed any interpretations 
that come naturally to you, into a story offered as interesting in 


itself, and as giving an abstracted vision of all the conflicts of 

humanity. » 

You might think that almost any seventeenth-century conceit 
could now be included in the third type; they all play off one 
subject against another, and use arguments that do not work 
because they are ‘ on another plane.' But Donne, and the secular 
love-poets who follow him, are much too interested in one of the 
two worlds contrasted to use the other as more than a weapon. 

Alas, alas, who’s injured by my love? 

What sailor’s ships have my sighs drowned ? 

Who says my tears have overflowed his ground ? 

When did the heats that my veins fill 
Add one more to the plaguey Bill ? 

Soldiers find wars, and lawyers find out still 
Litigious men, that quarrels move, 

Though she and I do love. 

{The Canonization.) 

The other ways of viewing the world, in such a case, are brought 
in not as things that are also true, but as things once valuable 
which no longer seem important; they show him feeding the fire 
with all the furniture in the room. This advocate’s mood is not 
an ambiguous one. Herbert and the devotional poets, on the 
other hand, use a conceit to diffuse the interest back on to a whole 
body of experience, whose parts are supposed eventually recon- 
cilable with one another; and the reader must pause after each 
display of wit to allow the various moods in which it could be 
read, the various situations to which it could refer, to sink into 
his mind. There is a curious contrast between the momentum 
obtained by secular, and the stasis obtained by devotional, meta- 
physical poets, from the same sort of conceits ; I should explain 
this by calling only the second way of using them an ambiguity of 
the third type. 

But this form of ambiguity, though it was prominent in early 
Elizabethan writings, was soon felt as a triviality and abandoned 
by the dramatic writers. For if you are thinking about several 
situations at once you are detached from all of them, and are not 
observing any with an immediate intensity. I do nqt say this is 
impossible, only unlikely ; indeed, it is the contrast between this 
sort of abstraction and the intensity he is conveying in other ways 


(the fact that he has overcome this difficulty) which makes the 
poetry of George Herbert seem the product of an inner life so 
fully unified and of a belief so permanently held. 

So far I have dealt with the ambiguity of this type which talks 
about several things at once; there is also the ambiguity which 
talks about one thing and implies several ways of judging or 
feeling about it. This tends to be less rational and self-conscious, 
therefore less strictly fitted to the third type ; it is more dramatic 
and more aware of the complexities of human judgment. Pope 
continually makes use of it; partly because, though himself a 
furious partisan (or rather because of it, so as to pretend he is 
being fair), he externalises his remarks very completely into state- 
ments of fact such as must always admit of two judgments; partly 
because his statements are so compact, and his rhythmic unit so 
brief, that he has not always room for an unequivocal expression 
of feeling. The word ‘ equivocal ’ is a good one here ; much of 
the force of his satire comes from its pretence of equity. He 
stimulates the reader’s judgment by leaving an apparently un- 
resolved duality in his own — ‘this is the truth about my poor 
friend, and you may laugh if you will.’ The now fashionable 
attitude to the eighteenth century rather tends to obscure this 
point; it is true the humour of the period is often savage, but that 
does not show that the judgments with which it is concerned are 

Is Pope sneering or justifying, for instance, in one of the best 
known of these spare but widely buttressed constructions ? — 

who, high in Drury Lane, 

Lulled by soft zephyrs through the broken pane, 

Rhymes e’er he wakes, and prints before term ends. 

Obliged by hunger, and request of friends. 

{Epistle to Arbuthnot.) 

No one can deny that these words ridicule, but: obliged by 
hunger: I am not sure that they titter; it is only after you have 
been faced with the dignity of human need that you are moved on 
to see the grandeur of human vanity. Much recent apologetic 
for Pope has contented itself with saying how clever it was of the 
little fellow to be so rude ; but to suppose this line means merely 
‘ the man must have been a fool as well as a bore, since he was 


hungry,’ is not merely an injustice to Pope’s humanity, it is a 
failure to understand the tone he adopts towards his readers. 

Soft were my numbers, who could take offence 

When pure description held the place of sense? . . . 

Yet then did Gildon draw his venal quill. 

1 wished the man a dinner, and sat still. 

{Epistle to Arhuthnot.) 

Good, sympathetic Mr. Pope, one is to think; he has a profound 
knowledge of human nature. The situation in these two ex- 
amples is the same; the first stresses his contempt, the second 
his magnanimity ; but in neither can one be sure what proportions 
are intended. A more verbal expression for this doubt is giv^n in 
the line about the Goddess of Dulness : 

Where, in nice balance, truth with gold she weighs, 

And solid pudding against empty praise. 

{Dunciady 152.) 

Neither truth nor gold^ neither praise nor pudding, are to be 
despised, and the pairs may be connected in various ways. A 
poet is praised by posterity for attending to what Pope called 
truth; whereas gold and pudding are to be gained by flattery. 
Gold may be the weights of the balance with which truth is 
weighed, so that the poet will tell any lie that he decides will pay; 
or all four things may be alike and equally desirable, so that, 
though the author is hungry and sensible, he is also truthful and 
anxious for his reputation ; his proportion of praise and pudding 
has to be worked out with honest care. This spectacle, in its 
humble way, is taken to be charming; so that this version is 
contemptuous but without the bitterness of the first one. For 
these versions, praise is that of good critics, and it is empty beside 
pudding in a sense that would sympathise with the poet’s hunger, 
or as an imagined quotation from him so as to bring him into 
contempt. But it might be empty as unjustified, as being the 
praise of (that is, from or to) the rich patrons who had bought the 
compliments; gold then takes on the suggestion of contempt, 
never far from it in Pope’s mind, and means ‘shoddy poetical 
ornament’; pudding is paired with truth, in the natupal order of 
the antitheses, and means either the cheap food ivhich is all he 
would be able to buy, or the solid reality of his dull but worthy 


writings. At any rate, the epithets solid and empty contradict the 
antithesis ‘venal* and ‘genuine*; it is gay and ge/ierous of Pope 
to have so much sympathy sNiih pudding\ and it is this detach- 
ment from either judgment in the matter (the truth such men 
could tell, the praise they could win, is nothing for Pope to be 
excited about) which makes the act of weighing them seem so 

This process of interpretation may evidently be applied to the 
feelings a reader imposes on the material; there may be an 
interest due to the contrast between the stock response and the 
response demanded by the author. I think myself, in the follow- 
ing border-line case, that I am describing the attitude of Pope, 
but*such an analysis would have achieved its object if it described 
the attitude only of the majority of his readers. It is that descrip- 
tion of a great eighteenth-century mansion in which Pope is 
apparently concerned only to make its grandeur seem vulgar and 

his building is a town, 

His pond an ocean, his parterre a down. 

Who but must laugh, the master when he sees, 

A puny insect, shuddering at a breeze. 

My lord advances, with majestic mien, 

Smit with the mighty pleasure to be seen. 

But hark, the chiming clocks to dinner call ; 

A hundred footsteps scrape the marble hall : 

Is this a dinner ? this a genial room ? 

No, ’tis a temple, and a hecatomb. 

{Moral Essays y iv.) 

All this is great fun; but before concluding that Pope*s better 
judgment really disapproved of the splendour that he evidently 
envied, one must remember the saying that as Augustus found 
Rome, so Dryden found English ‘ brick, and left it marble* ; that 
the Augustans minded about architecture and what Augustus 
did ; that | great part of the assurance and solidity of their atti- 
tude to life depended on solid contemporary evidences of national 
glory. When Pope prophesies the destruction of the building his 


language takes on a grandeur which reflects back and trans- 
figures it : 

Another age shall see the golden ear 
Embrown the slope, and nod on the parterre, 

Deep harvest bury all his pride has planned, 

And laughing Ceres reassume the land. 

These lines seem to me to convey what is called an intuitive 
intimacy with nature ; one is made to see a cornfield as sometjiing 
superb and as old as humanity, and breaking down dykes irre- 
sistibly, like the sea. But, of course, it embrowns as with further, 
more universal, gildings and nods on the parterre like a duchess; 
common things are made dignified by a mutual comparison 
which entirely depends on the dignity of Canons. The glory is a 
national rather than a personal one; democracy will bury the 
oligarch; but the national glory is now centred in the oligarch; 
and if the whole people has been made great, it is through the 
greatness of the Duke of Chandos. 

This seems to me rather a curious example of the mutual com- 
parison which elevates both parties ; in this case, it is the admira- 
tion latent in a sneer which becomes available as a source of 
energy for these subsidiary uses : and also an example of how the 
Wordsworthian feeling for nature can be called forth not by an 
isolated and moping interest in nature on her own account, but 
by a conception of nature in terms of human politics. I hope, at 
any rate, you agree with me that the lines convey this sort of 
sympathy intensely; that there is some sense of the immensity 
of harvest through a whole country ; that the relief with which 
the cripple for a moment identifies himself with something so 
strong and generous gives these two couplets an extraordinary 

It is not, of course, the normal use of allegory to make a state- 
ment which is intended to have several interpretations. The 
normal use is to tell a homely story and make clear that it means 
something else, something, for instance, religious or political, but 
not both ; so that there is only one real meaning, which the first 
meaning is frankly a device to convey.^ The reader does not 

^ Whether allegory is to be called ambiguous or not, the allegorical method 
has to be considered because it can be used for effects whicll are undoubtedly 
ambiguous ; thus the problem of definition is again secondary. 


think of it as ambiguous, but as pretending to be ambiguous, 
perhaps to evade some censorship ; and the critic must consider 
the consequences of the device before saying whether it is am- 
biguous or not. In devotional verse it is often used, like poetry 
itself, to impose calm on the writer and allow him to evade his 
own habits of reticence; almost all sexual language, too, as in 
Gray’s Cat, is a hierarchy of devices of this kind. It may be 
ambiguous in this sense, that two modes of feeling are implied 
about the one matter in hand ; but, for this, allegory is only of 
incidental convenience. As an example of its incidental con- 
venience, I shall consider a verse of that curious and superb 
Pilgrimage of Herbert, which so closely anticipates the Pilgrim's 
Progress, and contains both special and general ambiguity of the 
third type, both pun, allegory, and variety of feeling. 

That led me to the wild of Passion, which 
Some call the wold : 

A wasted place, but sometimes rich. 

Here I was robbed of all my gold. 

Save one good Angel, which a friend had tied 
Close to my side. 

Angel, of course, is a pun on the name of a coin ; wild and wold 
seem, as Herbert pronounced them, to have been puns on ‘ willed ’ 
and ‘ would.’ The most striking thing about the verse is its tone, 
prosaic, arid, without momentum, whose contrast with the feel- 
ing and experience conveyed gives a prophetic importance to this 
flat writing; there is the same even-voiced understatement in the 
language of the Gospels. This is made possible because, in the 
apparent story, he adopts the manner of a traveller, long after- 
wards, mentioning where he has been and what happened to him, 
as if only to pass the time. Several pretty devices carry this out, 
particularly in the word good, by which the traveller means, as in 
‘my good sword,’ ‘a thoroughly useful piece of gold,’ while the 
mystic, actually meaning ‘ holy,’ uses it as a distinguishing mark : 

‘ I mean the good angel, not the bad one, of the two that accom- 
pany a man.’ ^ Passion, in the apparent story a proper name which 
insists on the allegory, has a wide range of meanings, such as an 
irritated lack of patience, the loves of the flesh, and the ambitions 

^ Critics are accustomed to say that the angel was his wife ; this seems to 
me a secondary meaning, but it ought to be listed. 



at Court which he had abandoned; nor is it easy to map out its 
underground connections, by opposites, with the Passion of the 
Christ. (I am speaking, of course, of its poetical meaning; its 
prosaic meaning is not in doubt. ‘He was not exempt from 
passion and choler,’ said his brother, ‘being infirmities to which 
all our race is subject, but that excepted, without reproach in 
his actions.’) 

One must bear these meanings in mind when considering the 
third line, which seems to me exceedingly beautiful. It' fits 
precisely into the apparent story; the traveller lets drop a com- 
ment on the general appearance of the place^ before going on to 
the incident which made it worth mentioning; and yet in won- 
dering what the occasional riches of a wold can be like you find 
yourself (after reviewing deserts and oases, Spain’s vineyards and 
barren rock, and Horace Walpole’s remark about Blenheim, that 
it was like the castle of an ogre who had desolated the surrounding 
country) in the knightly fairyland of Spenser, among vast and 
inhuman wildernesses, and the portentous luxury of enchanted 
castles. As a statement about Herbert’s own life, it sums up with 
a pathetic generosity his long and painful process of judgment 
on the matter, with an air of saying as much as reticence allowed ; 
reading the poem is thus made into a social situation calling for 
some tact and delicacy; his readers are agog to see how much 
they can deduce from what he lets drop. 

I am including this example in the third type, because its 
methods, allegory and the overt pun, are the most conscious of 
all devices to produce ambiguity, and because the mood of the 
apparent is so effectively in contrast with the mood of the in- 
tended story. But this particular pair is one so normal in ordin- 
ary life, the situation itself is so ‘strong,’ that the various mean- 
ings are felt as a coherent unit, and the verse might reasonably 
have been placed in the fourth type. Notice, in particular, the 
reverse reaction, as the chemists say, obtained by taking Passion 
in the liturgical sense, so that the verse is now about the life of 
renunciation instead of about the life of ambition. It is still true 
that the place was mountainous (full of difficulties), wasted (both 
in the sense of ‘having wasted its own strength’ and ‘laid waste 
by monsters’), that it was sometimes rewarding, and that going 
to it lost him all his gold (no longer in the allegorical sense) except 


for one good Angel. That there should be a hint of this alter- 
native reading gives an impression, not of doub^, but of pathos 
and humility, in that after all his struggles he is only leading one 
of the possible good lives. I do not know whether this device 
is best produced or appreciated by holding it in the focus of 
consciousness ; it is too deeply rooted an ambiguity to be fitted 
into the third type. 

We have thus practically arrived already at the fourth type, in 
which the ambiguity is less conscious, because more completely 
accepted, or fitted into a larger unit. I shall close this chapter 
with some remarks about the transition. 

It is in the third type of ambiguity, when the two notions of the 
ambiguity are most sharply and consciously detached from one 
another, that one finds oneself forced to question its value. It 
must seem trivial to use one word with an effort when there is 
time enough to say two more simply; even if time is short it 
seems only twice as useful, in a sort of numerical way. And the 
value of the general variety of ambiguity of the third type is no 
more obvious; you remember how Proust, at the end of that 
great novel, having convinced the reader with the full sophistica- 
tion of his genius that he is going to produce an apocalypse, 
brings out with pathetic faith, as a fact of absolute value, that 
sometimes when you are living in one place you are reminded of 
living in another place, and this, since you are now apparently 
living in two places, means that you are outside time, in the only 
state of beatitude he can imagine. In any one place (atmosphere, 
mental climate) life is intolerable; in any two it is an ecstasy. 
Is it the number two, one is forced to speculate, which is of this 
encouraging character ? Is to live in 1 places necessarily more 
valuable than to live in tz ? When there is no connection between 
the two halves of an ornamental comparison, the two meanings 
of a pun, except that they are both relevant to the matter in hand, 
one would think that the comparison can only give trivial pleasure 
and the pun not be particularly funny. Thus we return to the 
notion I put at the beginning of the chapter, that in so far as an 
ambiguity is valuable, it cannot be purely of the third type. 

I consider that I have shown by examples how an ambiguity 
can approach jthe third-type definition, which is perhaps rather 
like a limit, and yet remain valuable; I might say, too, that there 


is a sort of formal satisfaction in such a connection between two 
ideas, even whcfi they are merely both relevant and need not have 
been particularly connected. For one is accustomed to such 
devices being used to connect things in an illuminating way, and 
there is at least the pleasure of expectation in seeing the shell even 
when it is empty. Much of the cult of ‘ style ’ is a sort of prac- 
tising in this way. But, indeed, one can say more boldly that 
Proust^s belief, as a matter of novel-writing, is very convincing; 
that the pleasure in style is continually to be explained by just 
such a releasing and knotted duality, where those who have been 
wedded in the argument are bedded together in the phrase ; that 
one must assume that n-\~ i is more valuable than n for any but the 
most evasively mystical theory of value. Those who adopt this 
view are taking refuge in the mysterious idea of an organism, of 
all things working together for good ; we shall expect, from this 
point of view, to find more important cases of ambiguity when 
several ambiguities are put together, when they belong to my 
next chapter, and represent a state of mind. 


AN ambiguity of the fourth type occurs when two or more 
XX meanings of a statement do not agree among themselves, but 
combine to make clear a more complicated state of mind in the 
author. Evidently this is a vague enough definition which would 
cover much of the third type, and almost everything in the types 
which follow; I shall only consider here its difference from the 
third type. 

One is conscious of the most important aspect of a thing, not 
the most complicated; the subsidiary complexities, once they 
havfe been understood, merely leave an impression in the mind 
that they were to such-and-such an effect and they are within 
reach if you wish to examine them. I put into the third type 
cases where one was intended to be mainly conscious of a verbal 
subtlety; in the fourth type the subtlety may be as great, the 
pun as distinct, the mixture of modes of judgment as puzzling, 
but they are not in the main focus of consciousness because the 
stress of the situation absorbs them, and they are felt to be natural 
under the circumstances. Of course, different readers apply 
their consciousness in different ways, and a line which taken alone 
would be of the third type may become of the fourth type in its 
setting; but the distinction, I think, is usually clear. 

I never saw that you did painting need. 

And therefore to your fair no painting set, 

I found (or thought I found) you did exceed. 

The barren tender of a Poet’s debt : 

And therefore have I slept in your report, 

That you yourself being extant well might show. 

How far a modern quill doth come too short, 

Speaking of worth, what worth in you doth grow. 

This silence for my sin you did impute, 

Which shall be most my glory being dumb, 

For I impair not beauty being mute, 

When others would give life, and bring a tomb. 

There lives more life in one of your fair eyes, 

Than both your Poets can in praise devise. 

{Sonnets y Ixxxiii.) 

Shakespeaiji is the writer upon whom ingenuity has most often 
been misapplied ; and if his syntax appears ambiguous, it may be 



because the Elizabethan rules of punctuation trusted to the 
reader’s intelligence and were more interested in rhetoric than 
in grammar. One must pause before shadowing with irony this 
noble compound of eulogy and apology. But one may notice its 
position in the sequence (Shakespeare seems to have been taunted 
for his inferiority, and is being abandoned for the rival poet) ; the 
mixture of extraordinary claims and bitter humility with which it 
is surrounded; and that the two adjacent Sonnets say: ‘Thou 
truly fair wert truly sympathised In true plain words by' thy 
truth-telling friend,’ and ‘You to your beauteous blessings add a 
curse. Being fond on praise, which makes your praises worse.’ It 
is not true that the feeling must be simple because it is deep; 
irony is similar to this kind of lyrical self-abandonment, or fhey 
relieve similar situations; by the energy with which such an 
adoration springs forward one can measure the objections which 
it is overriding, by the sharpness of what is treated as an ecstasy 
one may guess that it would otherwise have been pain. 

Line 2, then, goes both with line i and line 3. Taking it with 
line I, Shakespeare was only concerned for the young man’s best 
interests : ‘ I did not praise you in verse because I could not see 
that your reputation could be set any higher by my praise.’ Even 
for this, the primary, meaning there are two implications ; either 
never ‘ until you told me to praise you,’ an order accepted humbly 
but with some echo of being fond on praise, or ‘until I found 
you out ’ ; ‘ At one time I had not yet discovered that your cheeks 
needed rouge, and your character whitewash’; ‘When I first 
loved you I did not realise that you had this simple and touching 
desire for flattery.’ 

The first line may also stand alone, as an introduction, with 
these meanings, so that line 2 goes with line 3 ; for this version 
one would put a comma after therefore', ‘ And so, when no paint- 
ing had been set to your fairness ’ (paint to your cheeks or to a 
portrait, praise to your beauty or to your virtue, apology to your 
vices), ‘ I found that you exceeded ’ (in beauty, in virtue, or in 
wildness of life) ; ‘ And so, judging you simply, not foreseeing the 
defences I should have to build up against feeling harshly of you, 
it came to me as a shock to know you as you are.’^ The first 
version is much the stronger, both because I foun^ is parallel to 
I never saw and because exceed wants to pass over the comma and 


take the fourth line as its object; indeed, I put the second version 
down less from conviction than because I canncjt now read the 
line without thinking of it.^ 

For the various senses of line 4 we must first consider the 
meaning of tender^ which is almost wholly limited into its legal 
sense by debt ; ‘ offered payment of what is due.’ This is coloured, 
however, by ‘tender regard’ (i Henry IV., v. iv. 49); also the 
meaning ‘person who looks after’ may be fancied in the back- 
ground. Taking the word as object of exceed, we have : ‘ I found 
you were worth more than the normal compliments due from a 
poet hired to write eulogies of you,’ ‘ I found that you exceeded 
what I could express of beauty in verse,’ ‘ I found your tender- 
ness towards me exceeded the barren tenderness I owed you as 
your tame poet,’ ‘ I found that you were more to me than the 
person who would see to it that the hired poet wrote adequate 
praises.’ These assume the poefs debt is a debt owed by a poet. 
Taking it as owed to a poet, we have : ‘ I found that you gave me 
more than you need have done,’ ‘ I found that you treated me 
more as a friend than as a hired poet,’ and ‘ I found you felt for 
me more generously than I felt for you, when I merely looked 
after my job and wrote eulogies of you.’ I am being verbose here 
to show the complexity of the material ; the resultant ideas from 
all these permutations are only two: ‘You were treating me as a 
friend, not as a poet,’ and ‘ Y^ou were more than I could describe.’ 
Here tender is the object of exceed, but, stressing the comma after 
exceed, tender may be either, as a mere echo, a second object of 
found, ‘I found only the barren tender,’ ‘You did not treat me 
more as a friend than as a poet, so I stopped writing’ (or thought 
I found is now a more generous doubt), or may be a comment in 
apposition to the whole first three lines : ‘ This was merely my 
business ; I thought your beauty and virtue so excessive because 
that was the proper thing ; to be expected from a poet in love ; to 
be expected from a professional poet trying to win favour at 
Court.’ Most people in reading the line only recognise the mean- 
ing, ‘You were more than I could describe,’ but they are made 
to feel also in the word barren a more dreary and more petty way 

^ One mijpt, I think, either say that the comma after exceed is a misprint 
or that it is intended to attract attention to the word and suggest that W. H. 
exceeded in mote ways than one. But the complexity of feeling is still there 
if it is a misprint. 


of feeling about the matter, they know there is some bitterness 

which this waye of generosity has submerged. 

Therefore in line 5 seems parallel to therefore in line 2, so that 
it could refer to found or saw. Or with a larger rhythm, the fifth 
line refers to the whole first quatrain and starts a new one. Alter- 
natively, therefore may refer forward to line 6 : ‘for this reason 
... in order that.’ Report is either what people in general say or 
what Shakespeare says, or what Shakespeare writes, about him ; 
thus I have slept in your report means either ‘I have stopped writing 
about you,’ or ‘ I have stopped contradicting rumours about you,’ or 
‘ I have bolstered up my faith in you by accepting the public’s good 
opinion of you. ’ That means ‘ in order that ’ (you might show well), 
‘ the fact that ’ (I have slept, which your being extant well shows), or 
‘for fear that* (your being extant might show how far a modern 
quill comes too short). Extant means visible, or successful and 
respected, or the subject of scandal. How and what follow show 
and speaking respectively, but for variations of grammar which 
leave them detached they may be regarded as introducing an 
exclamation and a question. The last line of the quatrain evi- 
dently refers backwards as its main meaning: ‘A modern quill 
comes too short when attempting to write of as much worth as 
is in you ’ ; it can also refer forwards, but in trying to regard it in 
this way one is bothered by a modern usage which could take it 
alone; ‘and, talking of worth, are you worth anything, now, 
frankly ? ’ This is not an Elizabethan idiom and was certainly not 
intended, but its coarseness is hard to keep out of one’s mind, 
because the version which takes line 8 with line 9 is very similar 
to it : ‘I was describing all the worth I could find in you without 
the effort of flattery, and this amounted to the silences of which 
you, being fond on praise, have been complaining.’ If you like 
you may call this version ridiculous, and hurriedly place a colon 
at the end of the second quatrain; but please notice that the line 
may still be read as: ‘I was afraid that a modern quill might 
come short of a high standard of worth in describing all the worth 
that it can find in you.* 

This seems to me a good illustration of the difference between 
the third type of ambiguity and the fourth. Shakespeare was 
exquisitely conscious of such subsidiary uses of grajnmar and the 
jokes that could be made out of bad stops (if example is needed, 


cx>nsider Quince in Act v., scene i. of the Dream); but I do not 
think he was conscious of these alternatives (certainly I do not 
think that the reader who is apprehending the result as poetry 
should be conscious of these alternatives) in a clear-cut way as if 
they were jokes. They do not need to be separated out to give 
their curious and harrowing overtone to the quatrain; and once 
they have been separated out, they can only be connected with 
the mood of the poem if you hold clearly in mind the third 
quatfain which is their reconciliation. I might first paraphrase 
the second. ‘ I have not written or talked about you fully, as the 
absence, or the particular kind, or the excess of scandal about you 
shows; either because your reality was already a sufficient ex- 
pression of your beauty and virtue, or in order that you might 
still make a good show in the eyes of the world, as you might not 
if I were to describe you as I now know you, or for fear that the 
contrast between you and your description might be bad for the 
literary reputation of the Elizabethans, or for fear that the con- 
trast between what this time and previous times could produce in 
the way of beauty and virtue might be bad for the Elizabethan 
reputation as a whole.’ 

It would be possible to regard line 12, which clinches the third 
quatrain, as an antithesis: ‘When others would bring life, I in 
fact bring a tomb.’ This might be Shakespeare’s tomb; ‘I do 
not flatter you but I bring you the devotion of a lifetime.’ More 
probably it is W. H.’s; ‘I do not attempt to flatter you at the 
moment; I bring you the sad and reserved gift of an eternal 
praise.’ We may extract from this some such meaning as : ‘I do 
not describe your beauty or your faithlessness, but my love for 
you.’ However, there are two other ways of taking the syntax 
which destroy this antithesis: ‘When others would bring life, 
I, if I wrote about you, would bring a tomb,’ and ‘When others 
would try to write about you, would try to give you life, and 
thereby bring you a tomb ’ ; for both these the tomb must imply 
some action which would impair beauty. The normal meaning 
is given by Sonnet xvii. : 

Who will beleeve my verse in time to come 
If^it were fild with your most high deserts ? 

Thoi^gh yet Heaven knowes it is but as a tombe 
Which hides your life, and shows not halfe your parts. 


This first use of the word has no doubt that it is eulogy; the 
Sonnet is glowing and dancing with his certitude. But when the 
metaphor is repeated, this time without being explained, it has 
grown dark with an incipient double meaning; ‘ I should fail you, 
now that you have behaved so badly to me, if I tried to express 
you in poetry; I should give you myself, and draw from my 
readers, a cold and limited judgment, praise you without sincer- 
ity, or blame you without thinking of the living man.’ (‘ Simply 
the thing I am Shall make me live’; Shakespeare contimially 
draws on a generosity of this kind. It is not ‘tout comprendre,’ 
in his view, it is merely to feel how a man comes to be a working 
system, which necessarily excites a degree of sympathy.) ^ 

A literary conundrum is tedious, and these meanings are enly 
worth detaching in so far as they are dissolved into the single 
mood of the poem. Many people would say that they cannot 
all be dissolved, that an evidently delicate and slender Sonnet 
ought not to take so much explaining, whatever its wealth of 
reference and feeling, that Shakespeare, if all this is true, wrote 
without properly clarifying his mind. One might protest via the 
epithet ‘natural,’ which has stuck to Shakespeare through so 
many literary fashions ; that he had a wide rather than a sharp 
focus to his mind ; that he snatched ideas almost at random from 
its balanced but multitudinous activity; that this is likely to be 
more so rather than less in his personal poetry ; and that in short 
(as Macaulay said in a very different connection) the reader must 
take such grammar as he can get and be thankful. One might 
apologise by saying that people have always read obscure mean- 
ings into Shakespeare, secure in the feeling, ‘ If it means less, why 
is it so beautiful ? ’ and that this analysis can only be offered as 
another mode of approaching so mysterious a totality, another 
glance at the effects of language. Or it may boldly be said that 
the composition of feeling, which never falls apart among these 

^ The tomb is fornial praise such as would be written on a tombstone, 
whereas the real merits of the man are closely connected with his faults, 
which can’t be mentioned in a formal style of praise. I am not now sure that 
the ambiguities of word and syntax add a great deal to what is clear enough 
as the theme. That the feeling behind the poem is ambivalent would not, 
I suppose, be denied. 

Maybe I should explain that I put another complete analysis^'of a Shake- 
speare Sonnet (xvi.) in the second chapter (p. 54) on the gn und that it has 
much less background of rudeness to W. H, than this later one. 


ambiguities (it is, on any interpretation, pained, bitter, tender and 
admiring; Shakespeare is being abandoned by W. H., and stiffly 
apologising for not having been servile to him), rises and is 
clinched plainly in the final couplet; we are reminded of the 
references to the roving eye glancing round for new conquests; 
Shakespeare includes the whole ambiguity in his enthusiasm; 
the worth and sin, the beauty and painting, are all delightful to 
him, and too subtle to be grasped. 

A Valediction, of weeping weeps for two reasons, which may 
not at first sight seem very different; because their love when 
they are together, which they must lose, is so valuable, and be- 
cause they are ‘nothing’ when they are apart. There is none of 
the 'Platonic pretence Donne keeps up elsewhere, that their love 
is independent of being together ; he can find no satisfaction in 
his hopelessness but to make as much of the actual situation of 
parting as possible ; and the language of the poem is shot through 
with a suspicion which for once he is too delicate or too pre- 
occupied to state unambiguously, that when he is gone she will 
be unfaithful to him. Those critics who say the poem is sincere, 
by the way, and therefore must have been written to poor Anne, 
know not what they do. 

Let me powre forth 

My teares before thy face, whil’st I stay here, 

For thy face coins them, and thy stampe they beare, 

And by this Mintage they are something worth. 

For thus they be 
Pregnant of thee. 

Fruits of much grief they are, emblemes of more. 

When a tear falls, that thou falst which it bore. 

So thou and I are nothing then, when on a divers shore 

‘Allow me this foolishness; let me cry thoroughly while I can 
yet see your face, because my tears will be worth nothing, may, 
in fact, not flow at all, when once I have lost sight of you.’ ‘ Let 
me plunge, at this dramatic moment, into my despair, so that by 
its completeness I may be freed from it, and my tears may be 
coined into something more valuable.’ 

The metaphor of coining is suitable at first sight only ‘ because 
your worth and your beauty are both royal,’ but other deductions 

^ The three verses of the poem are quoted and examined separately. 


from it can be made. In that his tears will not reflect her face 
unless he stays^ here^ it may imply ‘ because it is only when I am 
seeing your beauty that it matters so much to me ; I only shed 
valuable tears about you when I am at your side.’ There is a 
shift of the metaphor in this, brought out by line 3, from the tears 
as molten metal which must be stamped with her value to the 
tears themselves as the completed coin\ * because,’ then, ‘you are 
so fruitful of unhappiness ’ ; and in either case, far in the back- 
ground, in so far as she is not really such a queenly figure, 
‘because you are public, mercenary, and illegal.’ ^ 

In each of the three verses of the poem the two short middle 
lines are separated only by commas from the lines before and 
after them; Professor Grierson on the two occasions that he has 
corrected this has accurately chosen the more important meaning, 
and unnecessarily cut off the less. In this verse, for thus they be 
may be a note to give the reasons why the tears are something 
worth, or may be parallel to for thy face coins them, so that it leads 
on to the rest of the stanza. Going backwards, ‘ Let me pour out 
at once the tears I shall have to shed sooner or later, because if I 
do it now they will reflect your face and become valuable because 
they contain you ’ ; going forwards, ‘ Let me pour forth my tears 
before your face, because they are epitomes of you in this way, 
that they are born in sorrow, and are signs that there is more 
sorrow to come after.’ Pregnant because they are like her, in that 
they /a// and are emblems of grief, and give true information about 
her (as in ‘a pregnant sentence’), because they are round and 
large like a pregnancy, because they hold a reflection of her inside 
them, and because, if they are wept in her presence, they will 
carry her more completely with them, and so do him more good. 
It is this last obscure sense, that he is getting rid of her, or satis- 
fying her, or getting his feeling for her into a more manageable 
form, by a storm of emotion in her presence, that gives energy to 
the metaphor of pregnancy, and logic to the second alternative 
— ^the idea that she normally causes sorrow. 

Corresponding to these alternative meanings of for thus, that 
thou means ‘the fact that you’ and ‘that particular case of you.’ 

^ I doubt now whether Donne would have minded leavine these con- 
ceivable implications lying about, even if the poem were in fa(S written for 
his wife. He might well have feared that she would throw '»ip her reckless 


‘ The tears are emblems of more grief by foreshowing, when they 
fall, that you will fall who were the cause of them ’ (if which refers 
to a person it should be the subject of bore), or, beginning a new 
sentence at when, ‘when a tear falls, that reflection of you which 
it carries in it falls too ’ {which now refers to a thing and so can 
be the object). 

And corresponding to these again, there is a slight variation 
in the meaning of so, according as the last line stands alone or 
follows on from the one before. ‘These tears by falling show 
that you will fall who were the cause of them. And therefore, 
because you will fall when we are separated, when we are separ- 
ated we shall both become nothing,’ or ‘When the reflection of 
you is detached from my eye and put on a separate tear it falls ; 
in the same way we shall ourselves fall and be nothing when we 
are separated by water.’ 

All these versions imply that their love was bound to lead to 
unhappiness; the word fall expects unfaithfulness, as well as 
negation, from her absence ; then means both ‘ when you fall ’ and 
‘when we are separated,’ as if they were much the same thing; 
and nothing (never name her, child, if she be nought, advised 
Mrs. Quickly) says the same of himself also, when a channel 
divides them deeper, but no less salt, than their pool of tears. 
On a round ball, 

A workeman that hath copies by, can lay 
An Europe, Afrique, and an Asia, 

And quickly make that, which was nothing, All, 

So doth each teare 
Which thee doth weare, 

A globe, yea world by that impression grow 
Till my tears mixed with thine do overflow 
This world, by waters sent from thee, my heaven dissolved so. 

The first four lines are defining the new theme, and their gram- 
mar is straightforward. Then the teare may be active or passive, 
like the workeman or like the ball\ on the face of it, it is like the 
ball, but so doth may treat it as like the workeman. For doth may 
be a separate verb as well as an auxiliary of grow, while, in any 
case, grow may either mean ‘turn into’ or ‘grow larger.’ The 
globe and the world may be either the teare or thee. The other 
meanings of impression (p. 166) would be possible here. Either, 
then, ‘ In the same way each tear that wears you, who are a whole 


world yourself or at least the copy of one, grows into a world,* or 
‘ And so does every tear that wears you ; each tear, that is, grows, 
so as to include everything, or to produce a great deal more 
water*; it is only this second, vaguer meaning which gives a 
precise meaning to till, and suggests, instead of a mere heap of 
world-tears, such a flood as descended upon the wickedness of 
the antediluvians. 

Which thee doth weare suggests by the order of the words a 
more normal meaning, that her tears are jewels and she is zvearing 
them; this is inverted by the grammar, so as to leave an impres- 
sion that she is uniquely and unnaturally under the control of her 
tears, or even has no existence independent of them. 

The last line but one may stand alone, with overflow meahing 
simply ‘flow excessively,’ or ‘flow into each other,’ so as to spoil 
each other’s shape, and then the last line, by itself, means, ‘ In the 
same way, the necessities of this, the real, world have dissolved 
my precarious heaven by means of, or into, tears.’ Or making 
world the object of overflow, it may mean, according as this world 
is the real world or the tear, either ‘ we produce more and more 
tears till we drown the world altogether, and can no longer see 
things like ordinary people,’ or ‘my tear reflects you and so is a 
world till one of your tears falls on it, spoils its shape and leaves 
only a splash’; it is she who has made the world which is his 
heaven, and she who destroys it. The rest of the line then says, 

‘ in the same way my happiness in our love has been dissolved, 
by this meeting with your tears,’ making heaven the subject of the 
intransitive verb dissolved. But my heaven may be in apposition 
to thee\ dissolved may be a participle; and so may be not ‘in the 
same way’ but ‘so completely, so terribly’; it is not merely his 
memory and idea and understanding of her, it is the actual 
woman herself, as she was when they were happy together, who 
is dissolving under his eyes into the tears of this separation ; dis- 
solved, it has already happened. The waters are falling that were 
above the firmament; the heaven and crystalline spheres, which 
were she, are broken; she is no longer the person he made her, 
and will soon be made into a different person by another lover. 
These broken pieces of grammar which may be fitted together in 
so many ways are lost phrases jerked out whilst sobbing, and in 
the reading, ‘so my heaven dissolved this world,’ which though 


far in the background is developed in the following stanza, there 
is a final echo of unexplained reproach. 

O more than Moone, 

Draw not up seas to drowne me in thy spheare, 

Weep me not dead, in thine armes, but forbeare 
To teach the sea, what it may doe too soone, 

Let not the winde 
Example finde, 

To do me more harm, then it purpose th, 

Since thou and I sigh one another’s breath, 

Whoe’er sighs most, is cruellest, and hasts the other’s death. 

She is Mooney with a unifying reference to the first line of the 
poerfi, because she draws up the tides of weeping both from him 
and from herself, a power not necessarily to her credit, but at any 
rate deserving adoration; the moon, too, is female, inconstant, 
chaste because though bright cold, and has armes in which the 
new moon holds the old one. Some of the lyrical release in the 
line may be explained as because it is deifying her, and remem- 
bering the Sidney tradition, even now after so many faults in her 
have been implied, and are still being implied. She is more than 
Moone because she is more valuable to him than anything in the 
real world to which he is being recalled ; because she has just 
been called either the earth or the heavens and they are larger 
than the moon; as controlling tides more important or more 
dangerous than those of the sea; as making the world more 
hushed and glamorous than does moonlight; as being more in- 
constant, or as being more constant, than the moon; as being 
able to draw tides right up to her own sphere ; as shining by her 
own light; and as being more powerful because closer. 

In thy spheare may be taken with me^ ‘don’t drown me, 
whether with my tears or your own, now that I am still fairly 
happy and up in your sphere beside you ; don’t trouble to draw 
up the seas so high, or be so cruel as to draw up the seas so high, 
that they drown me now, since to-morrow they will drown me 
easily, when I am thrown down into the world’; may be taken 
alone, as ‘ your sphere of influence,’ your sort of drowning, ‘ don’t 
you go drowning me ; I have the whole sea to drown me when I 
take ship to-morrow’; or may be taken with Moone^ ‘you, far in 
your sphere, high and safe from sorrow in your permanence and 


your power to change, do not drown a poor mortal who is not 

in your sphere^ to whom these things matter more deeply.’ 

The machinery of interpretation is becoming too cumbrous 
here, in that I cannot see how these meanings come to convey 
tenderness rather than the passion of grief which has preceded 
them, how they come to mark a particular change of tone, a 
return towards control over the situation, which makes them 
seem more vividly words actually spoken. It is a question of the 
proportions in which these meanings are accepted, and^their 
interactions ; it is not surprising that the effect should be what 
it is, but I do not know that it could have been foreseen. Perhaps 
it is enough to say that the request, in its fantastic way, is more 
practical, and draws its point from the immediate situation.* 

Weep me not dead means: ‘do not make me cry myself to 
death; do not kill me with the sight of your tears; do not cry 
for me as for a man already dead, when, in fact, I am in your 
arms,’ and, with a different sort of feeling, ‘do not exert your 
power over the sea so as to make it drown me by sympathetic 
magic*; there is a conscious neatness in the ingenuity of the 
phrasing, perhaps because the same idea is being repeated, which 
brings out the change of tone in this verse. What it may doe too 
soone^ since the middle lines may as usual go forwards or back- 
wards, may be said of the sea or of the winde\ if of the winde the 
earlier syntax may be ‘forbeare in order to teach the sea to be 
calm ’ ; this gives point to the crude logic, which has in any case 
a sort of lyrical ease, of ‘ do not weep, but forbeare to weep.* The 
sea is going to separate them; it may be going to drown him; 
and so it may drown him, for all he cares, when he has lost her. 
The winde purposeth to blow him from her, and if she doesn’t 
stop sighing she will teach it to do more harm^ and upset the boat. 
One may notice the contrast between the danger and discomfort 
of this prospect, also the playfulness or brutality of the request, 
and the cooing assured seductive murmur of the sound doe too 
soone; by this time he is trying to soothe her. 

I always think of this poem as written before Donne’s first 
voyage with Essex, which he said he undertook to escape from 
‘the queasy pain of loving and being loved’; the fancy is trivial 
but brings out the change of tone in the last two lines. In itself 
the notion is a beautiful one, ‘our sympathy is so perfect that any 


expression of sorrow will give more pain to the other party than 
relief to its owner, so we ought to be trying to ci^eer each other 
up,’ but to say this is to abandon the honest luxuriance of sorrow 
with which they have been enlivening their parting, to try to 
forget feeling in a bright, argumentative, hearty quaintness (the 
good characters in Dickens make the orphan girl smile through 
her tears in this way); the language itself has become flattened 
and explanatory: so that he almost seems to be feeling for his 
hat. But perhaps I am libelling this masterpiece ; all one can say 
is that its passion exhausts itself; it achieves at the end the sense 
of reality he was looking for, and some calm of mind.^ 

This poem is ambiguous because his feelings were painfully 
mixed, and because he felt that at such a time it would be un- 
generous to spread them out clearly in his mind; to express 
sorrow at the obvious fact of parting gave an adequate relief to 
his disturbance, and the variety of irrelevant, incompatible ways 
of feeling about the affair that were lying about in his mind were 
able so to modify, enrich, leave their mark upon this plain lyrical 
relief as to make it something more memorable. 

I hope I have now made clear what the fourth type is like when 
it really gets under way; I shall add some much slighter cases 
which seemed illuminating. 

What if this present were the world’s last night ? 

Mark in my heart, O Soule, where thou dost dwell. 

The picture of Christ crucified, and tell 
Whether that countenance can thee affright, 

Teares in his eyes quench the amasing light. 

Blood fills his frownes, which from his pierc’d head fell. 
And can that tongue adjudge thee unto hell, 

Which prayed forgivenesse for his foes fierce spight ? 

No, no; but as in my idolatrie 
I said to all my profane mistresses, 

Beauty, of pitty, foulness onely is 
A sign of rigour; so I say to thee. 

To wicked spirits are horrid shapes assign’d. 

This beauteous form assures a piteous mind. 

(Donne, Holy Sonnets^ xiii.) 

In one’s first reading of the first line, the dramatic idea is of 

^ It seems at least possible that they may choose to do each other less harm 
than they could ^ he seems therefore to have cured himself of some of the 
earlier suspicions. I still think that all this analysis is correct. 



Donne pausing in the very act of sin, stricken and swaddled by 
a black unexpe^cted terror: suppose the end of the world came 
now ? The preacher proceeds to comfort us after this shock has 
secured our attention. But looking back, and taking for granted 
the end’s general impression of security, the first line no longer 
conflicts with it. ‘ Why, this may be the last night, but God is 
loving. What if it were ? ’ In the first notion one must collect 
one’s mind to answer the Lord suddenly, and Donne, in fact, 
shuffles up an old sophistry from Plato, belonging to the lyrical 
tradition he rather despised, and here even more absurdly flattering 
to the person addressed and doubtful as to its general truth than 
on the previous occasions he has found it handy. Is a man in the 
last stages of torture so beautiful, even if blood hides his frowns ? 
Never mind about that, he is pleased, we have carried it off all 
right; the great thing on these occasions is to have a ready tongue.^ 
A similar doubt as to emphasis runs through the Apparition^ 
and almost leaves one in doubt between two moods ; an amused 
pert and fanciful contempt, written up with more elaboration 
than it deserves, so as to give him an air of being detached from 
her and interested in literature; and the scream of agony and 
hatred by which this is blown aside. 

Then thy sicke taper will begin to winke 

is a bumping line full of guttering and oddity, but brisk with a 
sense of power over her. This has reached a certain intensity 
by the time we get to 


Thou call’st for more. 

And in false sleepe will from thee shrinke. 

with the stresses in the line almost equal ; Crashaw uses a similar 
rhythm to convey a chanting and mystical certainty. 

And in hti first ranks make thee room, 

Donne’s version conveys: ‘I am speaking quite seriously, with 
conviction, but with personal indifference, to this toad.’ 

And then poore Asptn wretch^ neglected thou 
All in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lye 
A veryer ghost than I. 

^ I leave in my expression of distaste for the poem, but it nas little to do 
with the ambiguity in question. 


The stress is on neglected', ‘you would be glad to get me back 
now if you could.’ But 

since my love is spent * 

I had rather thou shouldst ^^mfully rtpent 
Than by my threatenings rest still innocent. 

What a placid epigrammatical way of stopping, we are to think, 
and how trivial the affair is made by this final admission that she 
is innocent ! he would not say that if he cared for her any more. 

But* after all, the first line calls her a murderess, and the way 
most people read the poem makes the poet more seriously 
involved ; 

Then thy sicke taper will begin to winke 


(‘As does mine now; you have left me ill and exhausted,’ and 
the last part of the line gabbles with fury.) 

And in false sleepe will from thee shrinke 

(‘As you, if I can credit it, as you have shrunk from me\ with a 
disgust which I shall yet turn to terror.’) 

And then poore Aspen wretch, neglected thou 

(It is almost a childish cry; ‘I find it intolerable to be so neg- 

A veryer ghost than I 

(‘Than I am now,’ not ‘than I shall be then’); that his love is 
spent has become pathetically unbelievable ; 

I had rather thou shouldst painfully repent 

‘(As I am repenting, in agony’); and innocent has become a 
scream of jealous hatred at her hypocrisy, of an impotent desire 
to give any pain he can find. 

The meaning of an English sentence is largely decided by the 
accent, and yet one learns in conversation to put the accent in 
several places at once ; it may be possible to read the poem so as to 
combine these two ways of underlining it. But these last two 
cases are curious in that the alternative versions seem particularly 
hard to unite into a single vocal effect. You may be intended, 
while reading a line one way, to be conscious that it could be read 
in another;* so that if it is to be read aloud it must be read twice; 
or you may be intended to read it in some way different from the 


colloquial speech-movement so as to imply both ways at once. 
Different styles of reading poetry aloud use these methods in 
different proportions, but perhaps these two last examples from 
Donne respectively demand the two methods in isolation. The 
following example from Hopkins shows the first case being 
forcibly included in the second. 

Margaret, are you grieving 
Over Goldengrove unleafing ? 

Leaves, like the things of man, you 
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you ? 

Ah, as the heart grows older 
It will come to such sights colder 
By and by, nor spare a sigh 
Though world of wanwood leafmeal lie ; 

And yet you will weep and know why. 

Now no matter, child, the name. 

Sorrow’s springs are the same. 

Nor mouth had, no, nor mind express’d. 

What heart heard of, ghost guess’d : 

It is the blight man was born for, 

It is Margaret you mourn for. 

Will weep may mean : ‘ insist upon weeping, now or later,’ or 
‘shall weep in the future.’ Know in either case may follow will^ 
like weepy ‘you insist upon knowing, or you shall know,’ or may 
mean : ‘ you already know why you weep, why you shall weep, 
or why you insist upon weeping,’ or thirdly, may be imperative, 
‘ listen and I shall tell you why you weep, or shall weep, or shall 
insist upon weeping, or insist upon weeping already.’ Mr. 
Richards, from whom I copy this (Practical Criticisniy p. 83), 
considers that the ambiguity of will is removed by the accent 
which Hopkins placed upon it; it seems to me rather that it is 
intensified. Certainly, with the accent on weep and andy will can 
only be the auxiliary verb, and with the accent on will its main 
meaning is ‘insist upon.’ But the future meaning also can be 
imposed upon this latter way of reading the line if it is the tense 
which is being stressed, if it insists on the contrast between the 
two sorts of weeping, or, including know with weepy between the 
two sorts of knowledge. Now it is useful that the tense should 
be stressed at this crucial point, because it is these two contrasts 
and their unity which make the point of the poem. 

It seems difficult to enjoy the accent on arcy which the poet 


has inserted; I take it to mean: ‘Sorrow’s springs, always the 
same, independent of our attitude to them and o^* our degree of 
consciousness of them, exist,’ permanently and as it were 

The two sorts of knowledge, intuitive and intellectual, form 
ambiguities again in the next couplet; this may help to show 
they are really there in the line about will. Mouth and mind may 
belong to Margaret or somebody else ; what heart heard of goes 
both forwards and backwards; and ghost, which in its gram- 
matical position means both the profundities of the unconscious- 
ness and the essentially conscious spirit, brings to mind both 
immortality and a dolorous haunting of the grave. ‘Nobody 
else“^s mouth had told her, nobody else’s mind had hinted to her, 
about the fact of mortality, which yet her own imagination had 
already invented, which her own spirit could foresee.’ ‘Her 
mouth had never mentioned death; she had never stated the idea 
to herself so as to be conscious of it; but death, since it was a 
part of her body, since it was natural to her organs, was known at 
sight as a portent by the obscure depths of her mind.’ My point 
is not so much that these two are mixed up as that the poet has 
shown precisely by insisting that they were the same, that he 
knew they were distinguishable, 

A much fainter example of the sort of ambiguity in question 
is supplied by one of Pope’s great passages about dowagers, which 
possesses in a high degree the sensuous beauty that is supposed 
to have been beyond his powers : 

As hags hold sabbats, not for joy but spite. 

So these their merry miserable night ; 

So round and round the ghosts of beauty glide, 

And haunt the places where their honour died. 

See how the world its veterans rewards. 

A youth of frolics, an old age of cards. 

Fair to no purpose, artful to no end, 

Young without lovers, old without a friend ; 

A fop her passion, and her prize a sot; 

Alive ridiculous, and dead forgot. 

{Essay on Women, Ep, 11. 245.) 

An impression of febrile and uncontrollable hatred is given to 
the terrible f;Jimax of this passage by the flat, indifferent little 
words, fop, sot, which, if they are to fill out the line, to give it 


weight, as its meaning and position demand, cannot be dropped 
with the analytical contempt with which they appear on the 
printed page; must be hurled at a person conceived as in front 
of you, to whom you know they are intolerable. Never was the 
couplet more of a rocking-horse if each line is considered separ- 
ately; but all the inertia of this flatness is needed to give him 
strength; never was the couplet given more delicacy of modula- 
tion than is here imposed by the mere weight and passion of the 
sense conveyed. What is so compelling about the passage is the 
combination within it of two sharply distinguished states of mind ; 
the finicking precision with which the subject-matter is handled; 
the pity, bitterness, and terror with which the subject-matter 
must be conceived. 

In the third type, two such different moods would both be in- 
cluded, laid side by side, made relevant as if by a generalisation ; 
in the fourth type they react with one another to produce some- 
thing different from either, and here the reaction is an explosion. 

I spoke of ‘ sensuous beauty,’ thinking of the second couplet 
quoted, to which a more verbal analysis can be applied. The 
dowagers razy glide round and round because they are still dancing, 
or merely, since they are fixed to the card-table in the next 
couplet, because they go on and on, in rotation, to the same 
drawing-rooms. In this way they may at once be conceived as 
still dancing and yet as at an age when, in those days, they would 
have had to stop. They are first spoken of as ghosts of their dead 
beauty, and will then be thought of as still dancing, since such 
ghosts would still be echoing what they had done in life ; but in 
the next line they are ghosts of their dead honour, haunting a place 
only, and that not so much the ballroom as the card-table. (These 
places, however, are practically the same, so there is an independ- 
ent ambiguity as to whether they lost their honour by cheating at 
the card-table or making assignations in the ballroom.) The 
result of this is that the two lines cannot run as simply as they 
claim to do ; ghosts means something different for each line, and 
you must in each case translate the line back into something said 
about old ladies, or the transitions will not work. But one is 
accustomed to this process of immediate translation onjy in verses 
of flowery and graceful ornament, so that it is a parody of the 
manner in which a gallant compliment would have been paid 


to the ladies, and has a ghastly air of being romantic and 

I must not deny that the ghost of a dead beaitty might haunt 
the place where her honour had died, as she might haunt the place 
where anything that interested her had happened. If you read 
it like this, there is a touch of that form of wit which caps a sen- 
tence with the unexpected word ; ' you might think she was most 
distressed at losing her beauty; but no, it’s her conscience that 
troubles the old woman, and well it may.’ However, I find it 
very difficult to read the lines like this; they stand too completely 
parallel and apart, and read like one blow after another. 

Or you may say from this parallelism that beauty and honour 
are* treated as necessary corollaries of one another, the two 
names being used in the two lines only for variety (as if from the 
old dictionary interest in synonyms); so that ghosts of beauty 
are the same as ghosts of honour, and had necessarily to lose their 
properties in the same place. Beauty and honour, then, are 
identical, so that we find ourselves, to our justifiable surprise, in 
Spenser’s fairy-story world of sensuous idealism. There is a sort 
of subterranean resonance in the verses from the clash of this 
association ; with a feverish anger, like the screws of a liner racing 
above water. Pope finds himself indeed hag-ridden by these poor 
creatures; they excite in him feelings irrelevantly powerful, of 
waste, of unavoidable futility, which no bullying of its object 
can satisfy. 

Wordsworth was not an ambiguous poet; the cult of 
simplicity moved its complexity back into the subconscious, 
poisoned only the sources of thought, in the high bogs of the 
mountains, and stated as simply as possible the fundamental 
disorders of the mind. But he sometimes uses what may be 
called philosophical ambiguities when he is not sure how far 
this process can tolerably be pushed. In the third type we 
found minor uses of ambiguity for jokes; the fourth type in- 
cludes its electoral applications. Thus the degree of pantheism 
implied by some of Wordsworth’s most famous passages depends 
very much on the taste of the reader, who can impose grammar 
without difficulty to uphold his own views. 

For I have learnt 

1^0 look on nature, not as in the hour 


Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes 
The still, sad music of humanity, 

Nor iharsh nor grating, though of ample power 
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt 

A presence that disturbs me with the joy 
Of elevated thoughts ; a sense sublime 
Of something far more deeply interfused, 
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, 
And the round ocean and the living air. 

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man : 

A motion and a spirit, that impels 

All thinking things, all objects of all thought, 

And rolls through all things. 

{Tintem Abbey.) 

It is not sufficient to say that these lines convey with gieat 
beauty the mood intended; Wordsworth seems to have believed 
in his own doctrines and wanted his readers to know what they 
were. It is reasonable, then, to try to extract from this passage 
definite opinions on the relations of God, man, and nature, and 
on the means by which such relations can be known. 

There are several points of difficulty in the grammar when one 
tries to do this. It is not certain what is more deeply interfused 
than what. It is not certain whether the music of humanity is the 
same as the presence', they are separated by the word and and a 
full stop. We may notice, too, that the word in seems to distin- 
guish, though but faintly, the mind of man from the light, the 
ocean, the air and the sky\ this tends to separate the motion and 
the spirit form from the presence and the something', but they 
may, again, all be identical with the music. Wordsworth may 
then have felt a something far more deeply interfused than the 
presence that disturbed him; we seem here to have God revealing 
himself in particular to the mystic, but being in a more funda- 
mental sense immanent in his whole creation.^ Or the something 
may be in apposition to the presence (the sense equal to the 703;); 
so that both are ‘ more ’ deeply interfused than the music of humane- 
ity, but apparently in the same way. This version only conceives 
God as immanent in his creation, and as affecting the poet in the 
same way as he affects everything else; or as only imagined by 
the poet as immanent in creation, in the same way as the music of 

^ Or one may stand for paganism (the local deity of a bit of lake scenery, 
say) and the other for the more puzzling doctrine (far more deef/'ly interfused) 
on which Wordsworth would support it. 


humanity is imagined as immanent. Thus, the first version is 
Christian, the second in part pantheistic, in part agnostic. Again, 
the something may possibly dwell only in the natural objects 
mentioned, ending at sky\ the motion and the spirit are then not 
thought of at all as interfused into nature, like the something \ they 
are things active in the mind of man. At the same time they are 
similar to the something; thus Wordsworth tithtr feels them br 
feels a sense of them. With this reading the voice would rise in 
some triumph at the words mind of man; man has a spirit 
immanent in nature in the same way as is the spirit of God, and 
is decently independent from him. Or the something may also 
dwell in the mind of man, and have the motion and the spirit in 
appbsition to it; under this less fortunate arrangement a God 
who is himself nature subjects us at once to determinism and 

So far I have been examining grammatical ambiguities, but 
the last three lines also admit of doubt, as to the purpose of what 
seems an irrelevant distinction. Whether man or some form of 
God is subject here, he distinguishes between things which are 
objects or subjects of thought, these he impels; and things which 
are neither objects nor subjects of thought, through these he 
merely rolls. (I am not sure what is the logical status of the 
things not the objects of thought about which Wordsworth is 
thinking here ; after all, he is not thinking very hard, so it may be 
all right.) The only advantage I can see in this distinction is that 
it makes the spirit at once intelligent and without intelligence; 
at once God and nature ; allows us to think of him as the second, 
without compromising his position as the first.^ 

And, indeed, whether or not a great deal of wisdom is en- 
shrined in these lines, lines just as muddled, superficially speak- 

^ Critics have disliked the meanness and fussiness of this passage, and 
I wish that I had something wise and reconciling to say after all these years. 
Miss M. C. Bradbrook wrote that the norms after the full stop are all obviously 
in apposition, because the theme is the transcendence of the subject-object 
relationship. It is, I suppose, almost certain that Wordsworth meant the 
grammar to nm on like this. But surely, even if clauses are in apposition, 
they must be supposed to be somehow distin^ishable, or why do they have 
to be said one after another ? One could give a much more sympathetic 
account of the philosophical background of Wordsworth, and no doubt if 
I. A. RicharA* Coleridge on Imagination had been already published I would 
have written differently. But the more seriously one takes the doctrine, it 
seems to me, the more this expression of it seems loose rhetoric. 


ing, may convey a mode of using their antinomies, and so act as 
creeds. The reason why one grudges Wordsworth this source of 
strength is thaf he talks as if he owned a creed by which his half- 
statements might be reconciled, whereas, in so far as his creed 
was definite, he found these half-statements necessary to keep it 
at bay. There is something rather shuffling about this attempt 
to be uplifting yet non-denominational, to put across as much 
pantheism as would not shock his readers. I must protest again 
that I enjoy the lines very much, and find, like everybody else, 
that I remember them; probably it was necessary for Words- 
worth to shuffle, if he was to maintain his peculiar poetical 
attitude. And, of course, by considering the example in this 
chapter, I have shown that I regard the shuffling as a deeply- 
rooted necessity, not conscious at the time when it was achieved. 
But, perhaps, this last example may show how these methods can 
be used to convict a poet of holding muddled opinions rather 
than to praise the complexity of the order of his mind. To the 
more fruitful sorts of muddle I must proceed in my next chapter. 


A n ambiguity of the fifth type occurs when the author is dis- 
^ covering his idea in the act of writing, or not holding it all ir 
his mind at once, so that, for instance, there is a simile which 
applies to nothing exactly, but lies half-way between two things 
when the author is moving from one to the other. ^ Shakespeare 
continually does it : 

Our Natures do pursue 
Like Rats that ravyn downe their proper Bane 
A thirsty evil, and when we drinke we die. 

, {Measure for Measure ^ i. ii.) 

Evidently the first idea was that lust itself was the poison ; but 
the v^ord proper^ introduced as meaning ‘suitable for rats,’ but 
also having an irrelevant suggestion of ‘right and natural,’ and 
more exact memory of those (nowadays phosphorus) poisons 
which are designed to prevent rats from dying in the wainscot, 
produced the grander and less usual image, in which the eating 
of the poison corresponds to the Fall of Man, and it is drinking 
water, a healthful and natural human function, which it is intoler- 
able to avoid, and which brings death. By reflection, then, proper 
bane becomes ambiguous, since it is now water as well as poison. 
Ford is fond of the same device, possibly from imitation : 

Giovanni. Now, now, work serious thoughts on baneful plots; 
Be all a man, my soul ; let not the curse 
Of old prescription rend from me the gall 
Of courage, which enrolls a glorious death: 

If I must totter like a well-grown oak, ; 

Some undershrubs shall in my weighty fall 
Be crushed to splits; with me they alPshalLperish. 

{^.Tis Pityy V. iii. end.) 

Gall is first used as ‘spirit to resent insults,’ the bitterness which 
is a proper part of the complete man. {We have galls: Othello, 
IV. iii. 93.) By the next line galls have suggested oak-galls (the 

^ This is at least ambiguous in the sense that the reader is puzzled by it; 
but the definition does not assert that there would be alternative reactions 
to the passage when completely grasped, or that the effect necessarily marks 
a complex nut integral state of mind in the author. I could claim, I think, 
that the confusion technique needs separate treatment, and it is put late in 
the book as showing much logical disorder. 



reactions of an oak to irritations), and the idea of proper retalia- 
tion is transferred to its power of falling on people, whether they 
are guilty of wrongs against it or not. But in between these two 
definite meanings the curious word enrolled seems a blurring of 
the focus ; he is thinking of his situation itself, rather than either 
metaphor, and keeping up the metaphorical language rather as 
a matter of form. 

A glorious death may be enrolled on the scroll of fame, so that 
the word could stand by itself ; or, looking backwards, one may 
gain strength for a glorious death by being bathed in, sustained 
by, a spurt of bitterness, so that gall has been rent (now with the 
opposite consequences) from its boundaries in the orderly mind, 
by being rolled in, or round about by, gall\ or, looking back- 
wards, it may be the oak itself which rolls down, both to death 
and upon its victims. You may say this is fanciful, and he was 
only looking for a word containing the letter ‘r’ which kept up 
the style, but in that case it is these associations which explain 
how that particular word came into his mind. I do not claim 
that one should admire this turgid piece of writing merely be- 
cause it is explicable.^ 

This form of ambiguity was fairly common in the nineteenth 
century; there is an example in the Shelley Skylark^ about which 
Mr. Eliot started a discussion. I am afraid more points were 
brought out than I remembered. 

The pale purple even 
Melts around thy flight ; 

Like a star of Heaven, 

In the broad daylight 

Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight — 

Keen as are the arrows 
Of that silver sphere 

Whose intense lamp narrows 
In the white dawn clear. 

Until we hardly see, we feel that it is there. 

All the earth and air 
With thy voice is loud. 

As, when night is bare. 

From one lonely cloud 

The moon rains out her beams, and Heaven is overtlowed. 

^ A trivial example from Dryden omitted. 


Mr. Eliot claimed not to know what the sphere was; one would 
take it to be the star^ as a matter of grammar. But the simile goes 
tumbling on into the next verse ; the bad rhyme clear — there — 
air may serve as evidence of this. The sphere is then the moon ; 
both moon and star are made fainter by the morning. There are 
two syntaxes for the verse: ‘your delight is as keen as are the 
arrows of the sphere,’ and ‘though the arrows of the sphere are 
so keen (as to carry a long way), yet even when we are so far off 
as to 6e out of shot we still feel the presence of its beauty.’ The 
last line may mean : ‘ We feel that your delight is there for a long 
time, until, in fact, we can hardly see you,’ or ‘whose lamp nar- 
rows till we can scarcely be said to see it, till we can more truly 
be kaid to feel that it is there.’ All these are well enough suited 
to the first simile, in which the larky out of sight but still audible 
as a series of silvery notes, is compared to a star, vrhich is spher- 
ical and whose light is silvery, out of sight in the daytime but still 
faintly sounding the music of the spheres. The arrows are then 
the bird’s separate piercing notes and the star’s separate twinkles, 
whether conceived as searching the poet’s heart or as rays drawn 
on an optical diagram. In this simile we jump from daylight to 
dawn to illustrate as process what was before considered as 
achieved ; as the lark becomes smaller, then invisible, as the star 
grows smaller, then goes out, so the poet is rapt into an ecstasy 
which purifies itself into nescience, and faints from the full clarity 
of beauty. In the new simile, therefore, the time of completion 
is not day but nighty and it is for this reason that the lark begins 
the first verse quoted by going up in the evening, (Mr. Eliot 
complained that Shelley had mixed up two of these periods; it 
seems less of an accident when you notice that he names all four.) 
The bird is now like the moony either when just emerging from a 
cloudy so that there is still a process though the sphere is now 
becoming more, not less, visible ; or when behind a cloudy so that 
though it leaves the earth in darkness (as the bird is out of 
sight) it can be recognised by its light on the edges of other 
clouds as something which is overflowing (being too great an 
ecstasy for) their upper surfaces. For this version bare means 
‘dark,’ and is contrasted with overflowed. Or, taking bare as 
‘ empty,’ Aiough the moon itself is not in sight the whole sky is 
glimmering with moonlight which has touched the invisible mists 


of the upper air ; the moon has overflowed its limitations, and 
takes effect mysteriously, like the poet, like the principle of 
beauty, even on those who cannot directly apprehend it. For 
the bird is a symbol of the poet; so is the cloud the poet and the 
moon behind it his inspiration ; one of the basic assumptions of 
Shelley’s poetry is that the poet stands in a very peculiar relation 
to ordinary people; he is an outcast and an unacknowledged 
legislator, and probably dying as well. 

Of the meanings of arrows those involving a series of shofs may 
seem less suited to the moon than to the star, as the moon does 
not twinkle ; but they are helped out by the word rains, by the 
idea of the moon suddenly emerging from the cloud to give a 
brief overwhelming illumination, and by the idea of Diana as*the 
huntress. This last, indeed, may be regarded as the point of the 
new simile; her beauty is too keen and too unattainable, so as to 
destroy the humanity which apprehends it. And the transition 
from one simile to another itself produces an effect which must 
be conceived in terms of this belief ; one is forced to swoon, in an 
ecstatic and febrile way, not rooted upon the earth, from flower 
to flower, and to find all exquisite and all unsatisfying. ‘How 
exciting all these beautiful things are ! here is another beautiful 
thing, which all my readers will think beautiful.’ 

The poem was probably written under the influence of the 
Keats Nightingale Ode, and for it to seem straightforward one 
must hold the main tenets of the Romantics. The skylark, I 
should have said before, is a very precise symbol of Shelley’s 
view of the poet; it rises higher and higher, straight upwards, 
alone, always singing, always in effort, till becoming exhausted 
somewhere out of sight of the normal world it tumbles back in 
silence, and resumes a humble, isolated, and invisible existence 
somewhere in the middle of a field. But on to this view of the 
bird as a symbol of the spiritual life, which thinks of it as strug- 
gling and dying, is grafted another view which thinks of it as 
outside human limitations; as free from pain and the satiety 
which follows mortal ecstasy, and indeed, like the nightingale, as 
immortal. From this point of view the rising of the skylark is an 
apotheosis of nature and unquestioned animal satisfaction (as at 
once more and less than human, and so in either ca^se^ree from 
our inadequacy), which is shown either rising to Heaven, because 


nature is superior to the complex and disorderly human processes 
which apprehend it (the natural is divine), or near ity that is, 
rising to the stars or the moon^ and so to one of the crystalline 
spheres (the natural is perfect). Its song, therefore, becomes 
something absolute, fundamental, outside time, and underlying 
all terrestrial harmony. (Surely it was unappreciative of Mr. 
Eliot to call that extremely packed line ‘shabby.’) 

Such beauty is never wholly known by human limitations, and 
as it grows more it must grow less visible. The sphere narrowing 
in daylight, then, is like the narrowing of the poet’s iris or eyelids, 
in the ecstasy of Romantic appreciation, like that fainting of the 
temporal mind in the very act of recognition of the eternal and 
absolute beauty, which Shelley has elsewhere compared to the 
fading of a red-hot coal. ‘Now more than ever were it rich to 
die’; ‘thou wert not born for death, immortal Bird.’ The lark 
is dawning into its day of joy just as the day of common earth is 
fading, and, to complete the reversal, the mind which has dark- 
ened, ‘ forlorn,’ from the vision of natural beauty, may then dawn 
again into an intellectual apprehension of it. The grammatical 
disorder of the verses is a very proper expression of the doctrine 
they convey.^ 

Another point Mr. Eliot has raised against Shelley is suscept- 
ible of the same sort of explanation : 

The world’s great age begins anew, 

The golden years return. 

The earth doth like a snake renew 
Her winter weeds outworn ; 

Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam 
Like wrecks of a dissolving dream. (Hellas ) 

Mr. Eliot said that snakes do not renew their cast skins, and do 
not cast them at the end of winter; and that a seventeenth- 
century poet would have known his own mind on such points. 
Weeds means both ‘garments,’ especially those of widows, like 
the old and dried snake-skin, and ‘vegetation,’ especially such 
coarse and hardy plants as would last through the winter, till 
something more interesting came up in the spring. Evidently it 

^ There seems no need to claim any ‘ grammatical disorder ’ ; the sphere 
can be taken* simply as the Morning Star. However, the example shows, 
I think, that thfe' technique of tumbling from one simile to another is likely 
to produce this type of ambiguity. 


is the second half of the pun which justifies the bad natural 
history; the make is relevant zs gleaming^ as a classical symbol of 
fertility and earth-spirits, and as effecting a transition to widows.^ 
I agree very heartily with what Mr. Eliot was saying at the time, 
and certainly these meanings are not so much united as hurried 
on top of each other, but it is, after all, a pun, almost a conceit. 
At the same time the thought seems excessively confused; this 
muddle of ideas clogging an apparently simple lyrical flow may 
be explained, but is not therefore justified; and it is evident that 
a hearty appetite for this and the following type of ambiguity 
would apologise for, would be able to extract pleasure from, very 
bad poetry indeed. 

In so far as an ambiguity sustains intricacy, delicacy, or com- 
pression of thought, or is an opportunism devoted to saying 
quickly what the reader already understands, it is to be respected 
(in so far, one is tempted to say, as the same thing could not have 
been said so effectively without it, but, of course, in poetry the 
same thing could never have been said in any other way). It is 
not to be respected in so far as it is due to weakness or thinness 
of thought, obscures the matter in hand unnecessarily (without 
furthering such incidental purposes as we have considered) or, 
when the interest of the passage is not focussed upon it, so that 
it is merely an opportunism in the handling of material, if the 
reader will not easily understand the ideas which are being 
shuffled, and will be given a general impression of incoherence. 
The ideas in the Shelley Skylark (if my interpretation is right) 
were obvious to Shelley, were, in fact, the main cause of the 
excitement he was translating into lyrical terms, but if they were 
to appear at all they required to be explained and kept in his 
conscious mind. The question is here one of focus; and it is 
in modem poetry, when the range of ideas is great and the diffi- 
culty of holding the right ones in the mind becomes acute, that 
we discover examples of the most advanced types of this series, 
and that ambiguity is most misused. 

One might regard as an extreme case of the transitional simile 
that ‘self-inwoven’ simile employed by Shelley, when not being 

^ The snake gleams in its new skin ; the old skin looks dull, and yet that 
seems to be compared to the faiths and empires (since they are svrecked). 
Or are they seen as burgeoning in the new spring while known to be tem- 
porary ? This, I think, is the interesting part of Ae confusion. 


able to think of a comparison fast enough he compares the thing 
to a vaguer or more abstract notion of itself, or jjoints out that 
it is its own nature, or that it sustains itself by supporting itself. 

With mighty whirl the multitudinous orb 
Grinds the bright brook into an azure mist 
Of elemental subtlety, like light. 

{Prometheus Unboundy iv.) 

The matter of the vision is so highly informed, so ethereal, that 
it can be compared to the Pure Form of which it is the matter. 

Like to a child o’erwearied with sweet toil . . . 

The spirit of the earth is laid asleep, 

• And you can see its little lips are moving 

Within the changing light of their own smiles 
Like one who talks of what he loves in dream. 


The last comparison is merely a statement of what he is. 

So came a chariot in the silent storm 
Of its own rushing splendour. . . . 

me sweetest flowers delayed not long . . . 

Me, not the phantom of that early Form 
Which moved upon its motion, . . . 

{The Triumph of Life,) 

The Form is its own justification ; it sustains itself, like God, by 
the fact that it exists. Poetry which idolises its object naturally 
gives it the attributes of deity, but to do it in this way is to 
destroy the simile, or make it incapable of its more serious func- 
tions. Shelley seldom perceived profitable relations between two 
things, he was too helplessly excited by one thing at a time, and 
that one thing was often a mere notion not conceived in action or 
in an environment. But, even with so limited an instrument as 
the short-circuited comparison, he could do great things. 

And others mournfully within the gloom 
Of their own shadow walked, and called it death. 


My definjition also gave ‘ not holding all the idea in one’s mind 
at once’ as a criterion. Any fortunate muddle would be included 
in this, such as occurs in the course of digesting one’s material. 

i62 seven types of AMBIGUITY 
Shakespeare’s Ariachne {Troilus^ v. 4), for Arachne and Ariadne, 
those two employers of thread, is a shining example. 

I saw fair Chloris walk alone 

When feathered rain came softly down, 

Like Jove descending from his tower 
To court her in a silver shower. 

(Anon., Oxford Book) 

Chloris herself was evidently not in the tower of Danae, because 
she was out walking in the snow; besides, the possession of 
towers is a sufficiently male characteristic; and there must be 
something from which the snow is to fall. Altogether the tower 
may just as well be given to Jupiter^ and this makes sure that the 
reader will remember the right story. There is a delicious air of 
being everyday and humble in that the shower is not gold but 
silver \ after all, no one could deny it was as good as that. In so 
far as the snow is feathered^ another myth is brought into the 
situation, and she is Leda as well as Danae. All this is what the 
Freudians would call transference; and being a psychological 
rather than a linguistic matter, one is not surprised to find that, 
in a more deeply-rooted, less gay and conscious form, it was of 
great use to the poets of the nineteenth century. 

The following odd and delicious example treats what I believe 
was a conscious pun as if it was an accident, and leaves piled up 
in a * sweet disorder ’ what the conceit would have found it hard 
to enclose. 

The Rose was sick and smiling died ; 

And, being to be sanctified, 

About the bed there sighing stood 
The sweet and flowery sisterhood : 

Some hung the head, while some did bring, 

To wash her, water from the spring. 

(Herrick, The Funeral Rites of the Rose) 

The comparison wdth maids of honour is not being worked out in 
any detail, and they fetch water from the spring merely because it 
is a fresh and pastoral sort of place to fetch it from. But surely, 
in the background, the spring is also the springtime; they fetch 
from the spring, which is the morning of the year, the dews of 
morning; they wash her with the dew of their owp, freshness, in 
that they are the flowers of spring; are, indeed, therefore (so 


brief is life) already dead before her, and experienced in the 
matter; and if the water is dew they wash her with their tears. 

The thing is not worked out coherently because Herrick is 
almost afraid to touch creatures of such delicacy; only in the 
most tangent, the most unselfseeking, medium will they allow 
him to observe them; and only in these hinted conceits, floating, 
treasured and uncertain, can he satisfy himself as if by capture 
what is so painfully unattained. 

S\^inburne uses this wider variety of the fifth type for a sort of 
mutual comparison which (unlike the mutual comparisons in the 
third type) is not interested in either of the things compared; he 
merely uses the connections between them to present the reader 
with a wide group of his stock associations. The mixed epithets 
of two metaphors are combined as if in a single statement not 
intended to be analysed but to convey a ‘ mood ’ : 

Night falls like fire ; the heavy lights run low, 

And as they drop, my blood and body so 
Shake as the flame shakes, full of days and hours 
That sleep not neither weep they as they go. 

Ah yet would God this flesh of mine might be 
Where air might wash and long leaves cover me. 

Where tides of grass break into foam of flowers, 

Or where the wind’s feet shine along the sea. 

{Laus Veneris.) 

‘ The coming of night is like the falling of fire ’ ; the sun becomes 
a red, glowing, exhausted ball on the horizon, day is going out, 
the fire, as it burns down, glows hotter, and all the heat natural 
to the firmament is being brought down (as if the ceiling was 
weighing on me) and crushed into my temples. But when the 
flame shakes our attention is transferred to a lamp ; it is lighting- 
up time; the indoor Victorian-furnished Venusberg becomes 
hotter, stuffier and more enclosed, more irritating to sick head- 
ache and nervous exhaustion, and the gas-jet will have to be 
popping from now on. Or the flame may be a symbolical candle ; 
it gutters in its socket which, low in its last struggles, it scorches, 
and rises and falls in popping and jerking disorder, like the 
throbbing and swooning of headache, and casts leaping and 
threatening shadows on the walls. Fully because it has ended the 

i 64 seven types OF AMBIGUITY 

time it is capable of, and because in its shaking it seems to be 
measuring seconds, magnified by a sickbed fixity of attention into 
hours; not sleeping or weepings because of the poet’s insomnia and 
emotional exhaustion, because of its contrast with, and indiffer- 
ence to, his weeping and the approaching sleep of his death, and 
because, in the story, this mood is fixed into an eternity outside 
the human order, in which tears are pointless, and the peace even 
of death unattainable.^ 

In the next verse, air might washy like water, and leaves might 
cover y like the sea or the grave; then by direct implication grass 
znd flowers are compared to waves; then the wind's feet shining 
along the seay whitening the tops of the waves, is compared, the 
other way round, to grass and flowersy and, as a fainter implica- 
tion, to grassy mounds with white tombstones on them. The 
sea, in Swinburne, shares with earth the position of great sweet 
mother, is cleaner, fresher, and more definitely dead. Nor must 
one forget the feet, so beautiful upon the mountains, of him that 
brings good tidings of the Lord. 

When Swinburne comes off he is a very full and direct 
writer; it is no use saying these verses show interest in mere 
sound, or pattern of verbal cadence. It would be true, perhaps, 
to say that he feels it more important to keep up his effect of 
texture than that, in any particular case, the meanings, the chord 
of associations, should come through. But in a literary, not 
perhaps in a stage, sense, this hypnotised detachment is a power- 
ful dramatic weapon. The various impulses when Tannhauser is 
before the Pope in Laus Veneris; his wish for help, and hopeless- 
ness, his impression that something kind was said (as if he knew 
it ought to have been, or heard later of the miracle, or simply the 
reader knew that the miracle occurred) and yet that ‘perhaps it 
can’t have been said, I know I heard him tell me not to seek mercy 
till the rod budded,’ and the further hopelessness justifying the 
dramatic accident (which embodies it) of his never hearing of the 
miracle, ‘what if it does bud, it would be a stranger thing for me 
to change my nature (even though, if I could change it, I might 
yet obtain mercy)’ — ^all this, by the very disorder of memory 

^ The first verse belongs to this chapter all right, but it is feie second 
verse which gives a straightforward example of Swinburne’s dse of mutual 


implied in the technique itself, is passed as a single unit into the 
reader’s mind. 

There is a kind of working model (from its bare simplicity and 
efficiency) of this technique in the famous chorus of Atalanta in 
Calydon : 

Time with a gift of tears 
Grief with a glass that ran. 

This^pretends to be two elements of a list with their attributes 
muddled, but is in fact a mutual comparison between the water- 
clock and the tearbottle. 

People are oddly determined to regard Swinburne as an ex- 
ponent of Pure Sound with no intellectual content. As a matter 
of technique, his work is full of such dissolved and contrasted 
reminiscences as need to be understood; as a matter of content, 
his sensibility was of the intellectual sort which proceeds from a 
process of analysis. His view of the relations between sadism 
and normal sexuality, for instance, whether or not it is particu- 
larly realistic, is always being laid before the reader (by con- 
trasted adjectives and so forth) as if he understood it himself by 
very intellectual means. So careful have his readers been not to 
analyse him that I might almost quote 

All shrines that were vestal are fiameless. 
But flame has not fallen from this 


as an example of a subdued pun ; though in itself it is a perfectly 
solid metaphysical conceit. 

I believe, then, that later English poetry is full of subdued 
conceits and ambiguities, in the sense that a reader has to know 
what the pun which establishes a connection would have been if 
it had been made, or has to be accustomed to conceits in poetry, 
so that, though a conceit has not actually been worked out, he can 
feel it as fundamental material, as the justification of an apparent 
disorder. In the same way such poetry will often imply a direc- 
tion of thought, or connection of ideas, by a transition from one 
sleeping metaphor to another. Later nineteenth-century poetry 
carried this delicacy to such a degree that it can reasonably be 
called decadent, because its eflFects depended on a tradition that 
its exampfte was destroying. 

But, of course, even if it be true that the nineteenth-century 


technique was arrived at, historically speaking, in this way, sc 
that it is in part the metaphysical tradition dug up when rotten, 
still that is no reason to think there is no other way to read it. 
One might deduce from what I have said that Shelley could onlj 
be enjoyed by persons intimately acquainted with the past historj 
of English poetry, which is far from true. And, for other reasons, 
it would be hard to make the statement good, to map out such 
effects, or to show that they were important when you had done 
so; I can only hope that my last examples will have m*ade il 
plausible. It may, however, be illuminating to approach the 
matter historically, and show how the later metaphysical poets 
came to take the conceit for granted, came to blur its sharp edge 
till they were writing something like nineteenth-century poetry. 

There is a sort of mental association which gains strength 
because it has been crystallised into a pun elsewhere; thus 
Marvell’s phrase about Charles the First 

He nothing common did or mean 
Upon that memorable scene ; 

But with his keener eye 

The Axes edge did try ; . ^ , v 

^ ^ ’ {Horattan Ode) 

seems to be remembering the Latin acieSy ‘eyesight’ and ‘sharp 
edge.’ Craahaw’s phrase about the Virgin and Child, 

She ’gainst those Mother-Diamonds tryes 
The points of her young Eagles’ Eyes, 

may rely on the same association, but at a further remove as the 
word axe is not used. You may say that the resulting poetry is 
not dependent on this word ; whether on the reader’s knowledge 
of it or on his belief that it existed. But even so it may be de- 
pendent on his making the association which had produced the 
word, and which the word itself had then strengthened. 

A similar situation occurs within the English language when 
a word has contracted in meaning since its use in a poem : 

[a successful lover is happy] 

But soon those Flames do lose their light 
Like Meteors of a Summer’s night. 

Nor can they to that region climb ^ 

To make impression upon Time. 4. 

(Marvell, The Unfortunate Lover) 


Impression meant an assault, a meteor^ and the noxious effects of 
the night air, as well as the modern meaning which gives ‘to 
make time take some notice of them and be respectful.’ Thus the 
word originally read as a pun, whereas it now seems a subdued 
conceit, in itself flat and puzzling, but to which we have been 
made accustomed by a later fashion. This is rather interesting, 
because it suggests that it was a change in the language itself, a 
limitation of its ambiguity, which produced the later fashion; 
poetr}* came automatically to be read in a different way. It is 
less fanciful to point out that, after the word had altered, the 
poetry, though read in a different way, remained substantially the 
same; you have now in some degree to invent the subsidiary 
meanings of impression for yourself, but this is not impossible. 
‘Time is a Platonic idea lodged in the highest heaven, whereas 
meteors can only reach the lowest of the spheres; in the same 
way the fires of love, though they are not denied to be heavenly, 
yet cannot snatch from the more exalted heavens any of that 
immortality, any of those powers over fate, which by being 
heavenly they seem to claim, and which since they are heavenly 
many people claim for them.’ Climb and the context force the 
meaning ‘assault’ on to impression; what is lost is the wit, and 
the courage which could be witty when it was saying such a 
thing, of the meaning ‘meteor.’ (It was always, of course, in the 
background; it would not make sensible grammar.) 

It is tactful, when making an obscure reference, to arrange 
that the verse shall be intelligible even when the reference is not 
understood. Thus many conceits are prepared to be treated as 
subdued conceits, though in themselves they have been fully 
worked out. Consider as the simplest kind of example 

The brotherless Heliades 

Melt in such amber tears as these. 

(Marvell, The Nymph Complaining.) 

If you have forgotten, as I had myself, who their brother was, 
and look it up, the poetry will scarcely seem more beautiful ; such 
of the myth as is wanted is implied. It is for reasons of this sort 
that poetry has so much equilibrium, and is so much less depend- 
ent on .^.otes than one would suppose. But something has 
happened ifter you have looked up the Heliades; the couplet 


has been justified. Marvell has claimed to make a classical refer- 
ence and it has turned out to be all right; this is of importance, 
because it was* only because you had faith in MarvelPs classical 
references that you felt as you did, that this mode of admiring 
nature seemed witty, sensitive, and cultured. If you had ex- 
pected, or if you had discovered, that Marvell had made the 
myth up, the couplet might still be admired but the situation 
would be different; for instance, you would want the brother to 
be more relevant to the matter in hand. Lyly continually invents 
fabulous beasts for his own stylistic convenience, and this gives 
him a childish, didactic, and exquisite air, merely because one 
gives his statements an unusual degree of disbelief. This is, of 
course, legitimate, and in an odd way courtly, because it treats 
the reader as a patron of learning without threatening to assume 
things that he ought already to know. More definitely it is a 
colloquial or prose device, intended to convey its point at a single 
reading; all that is relevant about the beast must be said at once, 
because from the nature of the case it is impossible to find out 
any more about him. But from a writer whose references are to 
be relied upon one expects a use of them which will repay study; 
one expects a simile with reserves of meaning and at any rate 
the first type of ambiguity. 

I have suggested here a few ways in which conceits might 
become vaguer than they need be; I shall now consider a couple 
of vague conceits by Marvell, which fall below the standard of 
precision that the metaphysicals set themselves, and try to explain 
how in effect they are so powerful. One difficulty about this is 
that I must assume they are peculiar, whereas the history of 
English literature has been such that to a modern reader they will 
seem more normal than the style from which they diverge. I 
must try, then, to show also that lines which approach towards 
the nineteenth-century ‘simplicity’ are, in fact, more complicated 
than the normal metaphysical conceit, though their machinery 
and its strangeness are less insistent, and though they move as 
though something simple was being conveyed. Marvell is a 
convenient person for this plan; as a metaphysical poet who had 
not forgotten the Elizabethans he is sensitive to a variety of 
influences, and one can watch the conceit at the beginning of its 
decay. From the elegy for the death of the Lord Hchiings: 



The gods themselves cannot their Joy conceal 
But draw their Veils, and their pure Beams reveal: 

Only they drooping Hymeneus note, 

Who for sad Purple^ tears his Saffron coat, 

And trails his Torches through the Starry Hall 
Reversed, at his Darling’s Funeral. 

An extreme, a direct, an unambiguous beauty wells up in these 
lines; the young man has died on the eve of his wedding; night 
has fallen. But apparently this is conveyed by comparing some 
funeral custom with something, possibly astronomical, seen in 
the sky; the mood of comparison is caught before it has worked 
itself out; instead of the sharp conceit at which Marvell excelled 
we ^ are given the elements which were to have been fitted to- 
gether, but flowing out, and associated only loosely into an 
impression of sorrow ; something, perhaps something very apoca- 
lyptic and reassuring, seems to have been meant, but we cannot 
think of it; and a veil of tenderness is cast over the dissatisfaction 
of the mind. 

This impression, that it is a Romantic Revival piece of writing, 
is given by regarding Marvell as one of the metaphysical poets, 
and then failing to find their particular sort of precision in his 
methods. But if you regard him as a disciple of Milton, there is 
nothing indefinite about the image; saffron is merely the colour 
of a marriage, purple of a mourning, robe; you are meant to see 
HymeUy an allegorical figure, performing a simple symbolical 
movement, with all his stock epithets about him. It is no longer 
necessary to interpret the first two lines, so that they mean ‘night 
fell and the stars came out,’ the gods appear as in a story about 
them. No doubt Milton or Spenser would have intended the 
epithets to be beautiful for a variety of reasons, but such extra 
meanings would be grouped loosely about an allegory to be 
imagined in its own terms. It would not be necessary (as it is 
if you expect a conceit) to wonder whether Hymen has any 
official standing as a star, or whether he has become identified 
with the sun for a moment, or how this could be justified; or to 
remember that Hymen, even when unshadowed by the darkness 
of death, was beloved of Vesper, and impatient for the nightfall. 
But then again, it is easier to feel that Marvell is describing a 
sunset watched alone in the open than the picture of a concretely 


imagined mythological figure; one feels, for some reason, that 
he has observed intensely what he has described only in this 
cursory and uRplausible way, as yellow deepening into purple, 
above a horizon of black with red isolated flares. The lines have 
thus a curious and impalpable form of ambiguity, in that they 
are drawing their energy from three different literary conven- 
tions at once. 

Only they drooping Hymeneus note, 

Who for sad Purple y tears his Saffron coat, ^ 

Whatever he may be, he is considered in the puzzled and fanciful 
way that one reserves for foreigners and the natural world ; we 
must watch patiently the strange pageant of his actions and force 
upon them any interpretation we can imagine. Only means from 
the point of view of the allegory ‘the only thing that prevents 
their perfect rejoicing,’ but as a matter of nature-study only the 
brightest stars, and they not fully unveiled, can be there to note 
the solenm celebrations of the nightfall. The next line contrasts 
its active and vehement verb tears with the ‘tears’ of weeping, 
then pronounced the same way (and the coats of a sunset are 
indeed formed of its tears), with the inactive sorrow of drooping, 
with the ritual dignity of the mythological figure, and with the 
slow far-reaching gradations of the colour-changes in the sky. 
If the saffron and purple noted by stars are indeed a sunset (we are 
not told so) there is another quieting influence from the sun’s 
regularity; from a sense that he may safely reverse his operations 
(dangerous and extravagant as this seems with most sorts of 
torcK) in that his setting is only the reversal of his rising; from 
a sense of order and perhaps of resurrection in the death of the 

And trails his Torches through the Starry Hall 

Reversed, at his Darling’s Funeral. 

Hymen may always trail his torches, and on this occasion be trail- 
ing them, with no less pomp, reversed, or he may at this painful 
news be trailing them in the sense of dragging them behind him, 
extinguished, not being used for anything, in his dejection. In 
either case the torches have to be interpreted as something to do 
with the sunset, something up in the sky, like the riars\ they 
must be the same sort of thing, or why is it considered so striking 


that they should be different? Torches when reversed arc liable 
to go out, smoke more, and are wasting themselves; never are 
they less like the perfect or eternal stars \ and in that we find them 
up in the sky we are set free ourselves, with a sense of being 
made at home in the sunset, to float out into the upper air.^ 

I feel some word of apology or explanation is needed as to why 
such a particularly fantastic analysis has to be given to lines of so 
direct a beauty, which seem so little tortured by the intellect, 
which are, in fact, early work, and rather carelessly phrased. The 
fact is that it is precisely in such cases, when there is an elaborate 
and definite technique at the back of the author’s mind but he 
is allowing it to fall into the disorders that come most easily, 
when he has various metaphors in mind which he means to fit 
in somewhere, when the effect is something rather unintelligible 
but with a strong poetical colour, when the mere act of wondering 
what it means allows it to sink, in an uncensored form, into the 
reader’s mind ; it is in just such cases that fifth type ambiguities 
are most likely to be found, and are most necessary as ex- 

A very similar effect, again produced by blurring of the meta- 
physical conceit, comes in Marvell’s poem on Eyes and Tears, ^ 
The funeral elegy on Lord Hastings moved rather in the world 
of Milton, whereas these verses are excellent and complete con- 
ceits, so that here there is no doubt the crux must be approached 
from the metaphysical point of view. 

How wisely Nature did decree. 

With the same Eyes to weep and see. 

That, having viewed the object vain, 

They might be ready to complain. 

And, since the Self-deluding Sight 
In a false Angle takes each hight ; 

These tears that better measure all, 

Like wat’ry Lines and Plummets fall. 

^ I have cut nearly two pages of this analysis for the second edition, and 
indeed feel that the whole chapter is verbose. It seemed hard to make the 
points convincingly without evocative writing. 

* I now think this example a mare’s nest — ^not in the details of the analysis 
but in the uaim that they amount to a blurring of the conceit. It is true, 
however, I thlik, that the lines would easily be enjoyed by nineteenth- 
century critics who thought conceits merely quaint. 


It is among such verses as these that one finds : 

What in the World most fair appears, 

Yea, even Laughter, turns to tears ; 

And all the Jewels which we prize 
Melt in these pendants of the Eyes. 

The chief impression here surely is not one of neatness but of 
parts which do not quite fit; and since the verse ‘carries it off’ 
with such an air of gracious achievement the mind is bluired and 
puzzled into a reflective state, and the second couplet sticks in 
your head. Jewels, of course, are relevant as typical of what 
appears most fair, as a symbol of the lust of the eye ; but why or 
how does 2i jewel melt in a pendant ? The definiteness of the good 
conceit suddenly escapes us, and yet it is no use saying this pro- 
duces a failure of the poetry; on the contrary, the lines seem 
suddenly to have become more serious and generalised. 

Melt in may mean ‘become of no account beside tears,’ or ‘are 
made of no account by tears,’ or ‘ dissolve so that they themselves 
become tears,’ or ‘are dissolved by tears so that the value which 
was before genuinely their own has now been assumed by and 
resides in tears.’ Tears from this become valuable in two ways, 
as containing the value of xht jewels (as belonging to the world of 
Cleopatra and hectic luxury) and as being one of those regal 
solvents that are competent to melt jewels (as belonging to the 
world of alchemists and magical power). Which suggests, more 
than ‘that’ would have done, that not zll jewels are prized, and 
only those prized melt in, or into, pendants. Eked out by this, but 
independent of it, there is a hint that it is eyes, especially a loved 
woman’s, which shine and are jewels; why should eyes have 
pendants, the word prompts us, if they are not jewels themselves ? 
Eyes, too, are brightest when suffused with tears, not for shed- 
ding, and of happiness; which yet, says the poet, shall fall from 
their jewel, turn to sorrow, and hecome pendants. 

Thus we have now some more meanings for melt in : ‘ in the 
melting of these eyes into pendants, which is a type of the world, 
we see the melting of all jewels into nothing, or into lesser stones 
of no value,’ or ‘in that these pendants coming from her eyes 
melt, and turn out to be water, we see that there is ixO perman- 
ence in those values that flow from the sources of the world,’ 


or ' her eyes have been jewels with tendernogs, but such jewels 
melt; those tears shall fall and be despair.’ 

One may notice that the jewels which we prize ate thought of 
as Eyes all the more easily because, in so far as they are not, the 
most striking thing about the reflection made by the couplet is 
that it is so untrue : 

that jewel in your ear . . . 

Shall last to be a precious stone 
When all your world of beauty’s gone, 


represents not only the facts of the case but the more usual 
sentiment about it; and the couplet makes up for its lack of 
‘wit’* by the claim on one’s attention contained in its paradox. 
But the reason that this claim seems justified, as the verse enters 
the mind, is that it contains the materials of many true conceits, 
pruned into the background, left vague, and packed closely. 

The reader may plausibly object that a poet cannot expect his 
readers to make up conceits for themselves, and that, in so far 
as I have been doing so, I have been making up a poem of my 
own. But no, I have been quoting; what is assumed by these 
verses is a wide acquaintance on the part of the reader with the 
conceits about tears that have been already made. 

Perhaps I have overstated the extent to which the conceit has 
been dissolved in this example; the one about Lord Hastings, 
I think, has no simple point, but in this case the idea of a jewel 
melting in a tear is sharp enough, and carries most of the feeling 
But, even if you regard it as a simple and successful conceit, 
there are yet crowding at its back this multitude of associations, 
taking effect in a different way, which are almost as strong as the 
main conceit and threaten to displace it in the mind or at least 
make it unnecessary. Marvell was admired both by his own 
generation and by the nineteenth century; one may suspect that 
this was because they were able to read him in different ways. If 
the previous example from Marvell was the bursting of the con- 
ceit, this is its final and most mellow ripeness, the skin thin and 
stretched to its utmost, the seeds ready to be scattered. By the 
last example of this chapter it has been made into jam. 

The distificjion may not seem clear between this example and, 
say, Donne’s Valediction in the last chapter. There one had to 


accept a conceit, by itself, and the ambiguities to be discovered 
were deductions from it : whether as to the reasons which must 
justify its implied comparison or as to the judgments which 
would make those reasons valid. I put the result into the fourth 
type because of the ordered complexity of judgment which the 
ambiguities of language implied. Here the conceit is only one 
element in the total effect, may indeed be no more than the fa9ade 
which holds the effect together and makes it seem sensible ; the 
ambiguities are to be discovered in more or less disorderly re- 
actions between the words themselves, and I put it in the fifth 
type as a case of fruitful disorder. 

Vaughan, as the disciple of Herbert, and precursor of Words- 
worth, naturally employs in the same way this swoon of the 
conceit into the suggestion of conceits, into this vaguer and 
apparently more direct, more evocative and sensory, mode of 
appeal. The following pantheistic quatrain, for instance, is at 
once wit and nature-study. 

So hills and valleys into singing break ; 

And though poor stones have neither speech nor tongue, 
While active winds and streams both run and speak. 

Yet stones are deep in admiration. ^ ^ 

Compared to speech and speak, tongue and run seem to be paired 
by sound rather than by sense ; till one remembers that tongues 
may be said to ‘run on,’ and that streams possess tongues in that 
they are running. It is by means of this verbal echo, which last- 
century critics would have regarded as a matter of Pure Sound, 
that the subdued puns are passed into the mind. And deep may 
refer to speechlessness, or to the solid rock which is below the 
soil; so that the verse as a whole is in part a conceit upon stones 
in general, as one of the four elements; in part, as evocative 
description, it gives the boulders on the hillside, struck dumb in 
the presence of the precipices, and in a giant silence waiting for 
their fall. 

Put on, put on, your best array. 

Let the joyed road make holiday. 

And flowers, that into hills do stray, 

Or secret groves, keep the highway. 

{Palm Junday). 

Parts of nature outcast and retiring, like Jesus, are to be brought, 


on this day of his showing forth, into the agora. On the one 
hand, there is a conceit on the connection of nature and the cult- 
hero; on the other, an implied description hf the solitary 
wanderings of the Christ. 

Such was the bright world, on the first seventh day, 

Before man brought forth sin, or sin decay. . . . 

When Heaven above them shined like molten glass 
While all the planets did unclouded pass. 

And springs, like dissolved pearls, their streams did pour, 
Ne^er marred with floods, nor angered with a shower. 

{Ascension Day.) 

On the one hand, it is an exalted and sensuous view of nature; 
on 'the other, perhaps from the gong-like note as of Dryden, 
which suggests a more precise and striking interpretation, we feel 
that before the Fall the whole mechanism of the spheres, a 
celestial orrery, a circumterrestrial clockwork, was seen going in 
the sky. It is these evanescent but powerful suggestions (like 
Milton’s two-handed engine) that Vaughan gains by blurring the 
outline and losing the energy of the conceit of Herbert. 

And in this last example the fading multiplicity of the conceit 
seems to have glimmered out of sight altogether. ‘ He treihbles,’ 
said Johnson, ‘upon the brink of meaning.’ 

God’s saints are shining lights; who stays 
Here long must pass 

O’er dark hills, swift streams, and steep ways 
As smooth as glass. 

(‘Joy of my life while left me here.') 

One does not separate them in one’s mind; it is the Romantic 
Movement’s technique ; dark hair, tidal water, landscape at dusk, 
are dissolved in your mind, as often in dreams, into an apparently 
direct sensory image which cannot be attached to any of the 


AN ambiguity of the sixth type occurs when a statement says 
XX nothing, by tautology, by contradiction, or by irrelevant 
statements; so that the reader is forced to invent statements of 
his own and they are liable to conflict with one another. We have 
already considered examples of contradiction which yield a direct 
meaning, and these might be regarded as in this class ; thus Moses, 
according to the Authorised Version, told the Lord that ‘Thou 
hast not delivered thy people at all,’ but ‘ Delivering thou hast not 
delivered ’ is the more direct translation in the margin. ‘ Though 
you said you would,’ or ‘No doubt from your point of view you 
are delivering us all the time, but it does not seem much to us,’ 
or ‘ I do not presume to say you are not delivering your people, 
but I find myself puzzled and unable to say that you are.’ In 
Hebrew this, presumably, is a polite idiom, and cannot fairly be 
put into the sixth type because its meaning is not in any doubt; 
the device is in a sense real and active, but it is not conceived as 
a contradiction. 

Contradictions of the same kind, however, when they are used 
as jokes, fall more definitely into this type, because the reader is 
meant to be conscious of them as such. The paragraph which 
describes the appearance of Zuleika Dobson is a pretty example. 

Zuleika was not strictly beautiful. 

‘ Do not suppose that she was anything so commonplace; do not 
suppose that you can easily imagine what she was like, or that she 
was not, probably, the rather out-of-the-way type that you par- 
ticularly admire ’ ; in this way (or rather, in the gambit of which 
this is a parody) jealousy is placated, imagination is set free, and 
nothing has been said (what is this strict type of beauty, anyway ?) 
which can be used against the author afterwards. 

Her eyes were a trifle large, and the lashes longer than they 
need have been. 

Not knowing how large the trifle may be, the reader has no means 
of being certain whether he would be charmed or appaJled. ‘ To 
me, from an academic point of view, this face is all wrong; but 



never mind me, boys; don’t let me spoil your fun.’ Her brow 
was not discreditable \ her hair, we are positively told, was curly. 
‘I must say I find something very excessive abodt all this; but 
you, of course, would have been impressed.’ 

The mouth was a mere replica of Cupid’s bow. 

He is becoming petulant; after not strictly beautiful it is no kind- 
ness to construct her out of familiar models; fiashy-looking 
creature had the same face as every one else, only twice as much 
of it. The eulogy now rises out of apparent understatement into 
warm but ambiguous praise : 

No apple-tree, no wall of peaches, had not been robbed, nor any 
Tyrian rose-garden, for the glory of Miss Dobson’s cheeks. Her 
neck was imitation-marble. Her hands and feet were of very mean 
proportions. She had no waist to speak of. 

The negatives in the first sentence throw a prim pattern over its 
lush fullness, force one to think ‘no, the tree had not,’ and give 
it, as a doubt in the background, exactly the opposite meaning, 
as by an Italian or vulgar-English double negative. In the 
second, of course, her neck could only imitate marble, but was it 
imitating imitation-marble ? the doubt reminds us of the appalling 
possibilities in imitating many perfectly genuine marbles, and 
perhaps of the imitation-marble ^xiYironmtnt of her early struggles. 
And then, since mean may be medium, small or without quality; 
since a waist is at once flesh and the absence of flesh; we are left 
in doubt whether the last two sentences mean that her beauty was 
unique and did not depend on the conventional details, or that 
these parts of her body were, in fact, not good enough to be worth 
mentioning, or that they were intensely and fashionably small. 

This contradiction as to the apparent subject of the statement 
seems very complete; it is not obvious what we are meant to 
believe at the end of it. But it cannot be said to represent a con- 
flict in the author’s mind ; the contradiction removes the reader 
from the apparent subject to the real one, and the chief ‘ meaning ’ 
of the paragraph, apart from the criticism in its parody, is ‘please 
believe in my story; we have got to take it sufficiently seriously 
to keep it going.’ I hope I need not apologise, after this example, 
for including Mr. Beerbohm among the poets. 

I shall consider what may reasonably be called two ambiguities 


by contradiction, in the love scene between Troilus and Cressida; 
but one must speak in this tentative way because, when readers 
can easily extract meaning from a sentence, there is a sort of 
irrelevance about saying that its main grammar has none; the 
fact might be true but not important. And I said that a reader 
should be conscious of a contradiction if it is to be of the sixth 
type ; but in complex cases the reader is not so much conscious 
of the contradiction as of the way it fails so as to have meaning. 
Thus the contradictions are likely to be well embedded in their 
setting, and not of a simplicity suitable for demonstration. 

Partly conscious of the difference between them, and feeling 
that she must bid for his sympathy, Cressida begins the scene by 
giving herself away; she has always wanted Troilus, she held off 
‘lest he would play the tyrant,’ to lengthen the time of wooing 
when at least she was definitely wanted, and make as sure of him 
as possible. It is said in the hope that he, too, will turn out to be 
a conscious and calculating person, living not by one consistent 
ideal but by the manipulation of several; she is not sure how 
much she is saying, or how much she can afford to say. It leads 
her to confusion, shame at her lack of simplicity, and an innocent 
fear that she has been trying to take advantage of him (helplessly, 
having got into the wrong style, she confesses that too) when he 
remains noble and romantic, silent and puzzled; when she is 
answered only by that heroic loyalty which will so easily turn to 
contempt of her, which springs from a secret belief that one can 
get anything one sets one’s heart on, which poor Cressida, in the 
humility of her opportunism, can echo only in her tantrums. 
She tries to get away from him. 

Tro. What offends you Lady? 

Cress. Sir, mine owne company. 

Tro. You cannot shun your selfe. 

Cress. Let me goe and try: 

I have a kinde of selfe recides with you : 

But an unkinde selfe, that it selfe will leave, 

To be anothers foole. Where is my wit? 

I would be gone : I speake I know not what. 

Tro. Well know they what they speak, that speak so wisely. 

(m. ii. 141.) 

They are wise too who know what has been spokep.*' I call it a 
contradiction on the assumption that the kinde of selfe which is 


fixed is the same as the unkinde selfe which will leave \ the pun 
amounts to one contradiction, the two statements as to mobility 
another, and there is a third as to whether she •has left herself 
already or is trying to do so now. She may mean ; ‘ I can leave 
myself since I have done so already ; part of me has gone over to 
your side, and is unkind to me because it makes me talk so 
foolishly,* or ‘the self I have given you is unkind because it is 
able to leave you, able to retire into its own privacy, able to take 
another lover.* But we may also regard the two selves as differ- 
ent; the point of the paradox is the assumption of difference 
within a term dedicated to unity. ‘Part of me will always be 
fixed in you ; but I have also an unkind self which does not know 
what it is about, wants to leave the kind self with you for the 
moment and get away to be alone.* This needs a further inter- 
pretation of another's fooL I think she feels ‘ Part of me I have 
already given you ; but there is another part of me which I am 
unnaturally trying to give as well; I have been trying to submit 
myself to you more than I have the generosity to do ; I have been 
trying to obtain a greater intimacy from you than you have the 
wit to sustain.* Hence, ‘I have an ungenerous self which will 
cease to be ungenerous by becoming another’s fool, when I 
submit myself wholly to a lover*; or remembering the fool was 
a domestic critic, ‘ I have a store of unkindness in me which may 
yet be brought out against you to mock at you.* 

Perchance my Lord, I shew more craft then love. 

And fell so roundly to a large confession, 

To Angle for your thoughts: but you are wise, 

Or else you love not : for to be wise and love, 

Exceedes mans might, that dwels with gods above. 

I call this second example, following on from the first, a con- 
tradiction, because the generalisation which is added to show the 
force of the antithesis makes it a false one. ‘Either you are wise 
or you do not love, because you cannot love if you are wise.* 
There is some difference between the alternatives, so that the 
antithesis is not actually illogical; if a man is wise we know he 
does not love, but if he does not love the dictum tells us nothing 
as to whether or not he is wise. Logically, then, the force of or 
else is ‘ at afty^rate * ; she moves down to a less sweeping deduction 
from his silence. But this is far-fetched, and the remark has an 


air of saying something directly; perhaps one takes or eke to 
mean ‘in other words,’ and the generalisation as a statement that 
the two things hre much the same. But since the two things are, 
in fact, placed as alternatives, we are forced to see that there is 
some doubt about the matter, and put a double interpretation 
upon both love and wisdom. 

You are zoise^ ‘ you love in the wholesale, self-dedicating, self- 
careless (because self-confident) way approved by theory’; you 
are wise (with admiring reproach) ‘ because, loving as I do, you 
will not confess it.’ Wise means ‘single-minded,’ as one speaks 
of the wisdom of the beasts, or ‘ careful to appear so, and not to 
give yourself away’; perhaps, also, ‘too well-balanced to be 
conscious of your duplicities.’ Love is a heroic and selfless, or a 
pathetically unscrupulous passion. Or else you love not, ‘ If you 
are not so wise as to love simply you cannot love me at all, for no 
one could both love and be too politic to confess his complexity.’ 
Or else you love not, ‘ If you are not keeping silent only out of 
caution you cannot love me at all, for no one could both love and 
be simple ; when you are really in love you cannot afford to be 
heroic and single-minded.’ (If either of these meanings is there, 
both must be, because there is no reason why the two meanings 
should be distributed one way rather than the other.) She feels 
that, in one way or another, he must be very wise, if only by 
contrast with her own folly in talking to him as she has done. 

The main logical structure of this exquisite song ^ is a contrast; 
take, but bring-, which involves a contradiction; and there is 
another in the idea of ‘returning’ a kiss : 

Take, oh take thy lips away, 

That so sweetly were forsworne. 

And those eyes : the break of day 
Lights that doe mislead the Morne ; 

But my kisses bring againe, 

bring againe. 

Seals of love, but seal’d in vaine, 
seal’d in vaine. 

In that he must take his lips away he is already in her presence ; 
she is actually telling him to go, and keeping command of the 
situation; or if he is only present in her imagination, because she 

^ It is sung for Mariana in the moated grange (Measure for Miasure, Act. iv. i.) 
and so I assumed that the forswearer was a man, not a woman. 


cannot forget him, still the source of her fantasy satisfaction is 
to pretend that he is already in her presence, that she is in a 
position to repel him, or pretend to repel him ; and her demand 
would be satisfied both by an expression of her resentment and 
by a forgetting of her desire. But he cannot be in her presence 
already, because he must come and bring again her kisses; and 
thus, when he is not present, she confesses that she wants more 
of them. But, again (if perhaps he is present, and she is sending 
him hick to fetch the things), he must not bring her new kisses, 
but only her old ones back, so as to restore her to her original 
unkissed condition. Notice that the metaphor from seals does 
not keep up this last pretence, which seems to be her main 
meaning; it is no more use giving back a seal when it has been 
broken than a kiss when you wish to revoke your kisses. It is 
these two contradictions, in short, which convey the ambivalence 
of her feeling for him. (And yet, after all, it is no use calling this 
a serious contradiction; we know what her total feelings are 
well enough.) ^ 

One can extract minor contradictions from the imagery. 
Either at the break of day : at dawn she can again see his beauty; 
in the morning he leaves her harshly and forgets his vows. Or 
like the break of day : he must take his eyes away even though, 
when they come, they give her world all the light it can now hope 
for; and in that they are like the sun of a day, one ought always 
to have expected that they would soon be taken. I think, too, 
there is a pun on break which gives it two opposite actions upon 
day; their coming is like daybreak because they restore her 
happiness, but he must take them away because they broke into, 
or broke up, the easy clarity of her carelessness; because they 
broke her heart either with their first beauty or with their final 
harshness; and the word still hints, under all these muffling 
associations, at the loss of her virginity. They mislead the morn 
is in main idea a simple hyperbole; ‘when your eyes arrive at a 
place nature thinks it is the sun rising.’ But mislead is a word 
already well suited to the situation ; she was herself in a state of 
morning before he came to her, because of her youth, freshness, 
and lack of experience ; just as she was day in the previous line, 

^ It is cleat p I think, that the song turns the conflict of feeling entirely ‘ into 
poetry,* however much you regard the ambiguity as inherently a dramatic one. 

i 82 seven types of AMBIGUITY 

either when she was happy in his love for her, so that the promise 
of her morning had been achieved, or before she met him, because 
of her sanity, safety, understanding of her own feelings, and 
freedom from the darkness of complex or unsatisfied desires. 

One may call those statements contradictions which make the 
reader reflect that they are untrue, or that they conflict with the 
implications of the passage. Thus 

Ah moon of my delight that knowest no wane, 

The moon of heaven is rising once again ; 

How oft hereafter rising shall she look 
Through this same garden after me, in vain. 

(Omar Khayyam.) 

contains a contradiction; the point of the verse is the inevit- 
ability of death, and the first line says that one or other of the 
persons concerned is unchanging. (Fitzgerald seems to have 
invented the clause about not waning, by the way; it does not 
occur in some of the versions.) In part this is to be excused as 
the super-imposition of two time-scales, in part as a compensa- 
tion mechanism, which holds in mind an untruth in order to 
find energy to recognise a truth. In part, I daresay, it should not 
be excused at all. 

In place of stating a contradiction it is often possible to ask a 
question whose answer is both yes and no; this device is par- 
ticularly frequent when an author is adopting a ‘poetical* style, 
so that he often wants to say things of greater logical complexity 
than his method will allow. It makes less parade of its com- 
plexity than any other. 

But who hath seen her wave her hand ? 

Or at the casement seen her stand ? 

Or is she known in all the land. 

The Lady of Shalott ? 

Yes and no. She is not known personally to anybody in all the 
land^ but everybody knows of her as a legend. Both these facts 
heighten the dramatic effect, and they are both conveyed by the 
single question. 

Ambiguity of the sixth type by tautology (not by irrelevance) 
is likely to fulfil the following rather exacting conditions : there 
will be a pun which is used twice, once in each sensi, and the 
massive fog of the complete ambiguity will then arise from a 


doubt as to which meaning goes with which word. The follow- 
ing example from Herbert is of this sort. One should start with 
an earlier verse of the poem. 

Whereas my birth and spirit rather took 
The way that takes the town, 

Thou didst betray me to a lingering book, 

And wrap me in a gown. 

I was entangled in the world of strife 
Before I had the power to change my life. 


Long as Herbert delayed in taking orders, the two halves of this 
verse, one saying he was betrayed into the life of contemplation, 
the^ other that he was entangled in the life of action, show him 
still doubtful which he would have preferred. Thus he seems 
to want to change his life even now, but it is hard to see in what 

Yet though thou troublest me, I must be meek; 

In weakness must be stout. 

Well, I will change the service, and go seek 
Some other master out. 

Ah, my dear God, though I am clean forgot. 

Let me not love thee, if I love thee not. 

It is the last line which I call an ambiguity by tautology. In the 
first line, meek may mean that he must endure what God puts 
upon him; in the second, stout may mean that he must endure it 
bravely. Thus the third line, which shows that both these words 
carried some hint of revolt, is a surprise; we arrive in some 
doubt at the final couplet. 

Forgotten, either by God or the world, either now or later, in 
consequence of seeking or of not seeking another master, of loving 
or of not loving God, To make the last line sensible (able to use 
these possible ambiguities), there must be some play, in the 
engineering sense, on the word love\ or only, perhaps, some dis- 
placement among the tenses. The only grammatical and sensible 
variation of tense would make the first love future, the second 
present: ‘ If I have stopped loving you, let me go; do not make 
me love you again in the future, so that I shall regret it if I return 
to the world. Allow me to be consistent, even though it means 


^ Probable the govm was Cambridge not the church ; he is recounting 
his life. 

i 84 seven types OF AMBIGUITY 

an entire loss of your favour.’ But one may also distinguish 
between the love of God which is an arduous effort towards a 
goal and the loye of God which has achieved its goal, which being 
a mystical illumination has no doubts and is its own reward. 
Allotting these meanings in the order given, we have : ‘ Do not 
let me spend my life trying to love you, loving you in will and 
deed but not in the calm of which so few are worthy. Do not 
make me hanker after you if I would be better under some other 
master elsewhere ; even though this would mean you must forget 
me altogether.’ It is a very reasonable deduction from the sexual 
metaphor used by devotional poets that God should in most cases 
be well scolded as a flirt; it seems always, however, to be done 
in language as veiled as that of my example. But the meanings 
may also be allotted the other way round : ' And yet, though you 
have already clean forgotten me, let me not love you in achieve- 
ment if I do not love you in desire.’ ‘ Damn me if I don’t stick 
to the parsonage’; he has no worse imprecation than the first 
part of the line, and it is used to give force to the statement of 
purpose in the second.^ 

There was an Archbishop Sharp who died with this couplet 
on his lips, and indeed, to a mind trained by dividing the word 
of God in the pulpit, to the febrile imagination, to the attention 
limited on to words remembered, of a sickbed, they might well 
open into extraordinary vistas of meaning. ^ 

Ambiguity of the sixth type by irrelevant statements maintains 
a precarious existence between the first type and the seventh. It 
is not merely a statement with various implications, but a state- 
ment with various implications which conflict; nor is it an 
essential contradiction, but a contradiction on matters not central 
to the writer’s interests at the moment, or a contradiction which 
is thought of as capable of being resolved. Like the first type it 
may be hunted among similes. Thus to say a thing is like gold 

^ Mr. F. L. Lucas took this treatment of Herbert’s poem as a proof of the 
vulgarity of my whole mode of approach. No doubt it is flippantly written, 
but a purely logical point can be made more clearly if it is not muffled by a 
sympathetic tone. The matter I cannot understand anyone objecting to ; 
the line seems to me so beautiful when it is interpreted as I do that I would 
have picked out this passage as the only splendid and obvious success I had 
had the good luck to achieve. i 

* Be that as it may, the Archbishop was murdered and probably had 
little time. 


may mean that it is glittering, strong, lifegiving, like the sun, 
young, virtuous, untrammelled, like the Golden Age, expensive 
and hence aristocratic, capable of being drawn ind beaten into 
delicate ornaments, a worthy setting for jewels; or it may mean 
simply ‘mercenary,’ and a heavy symbol of wealth, suitable for 

Then rose the seed of Chaos, and of Night, 

To blot out order, and extinguish light. 

Of dull and venal a new world to mould, 

And bring Saturnian days of lead and gold. 

(Pope, Dunciad) 

The Saturnian was the Golden Age ; Saturn was lead in astro- 
logy. Gold is intended to have the two sorts of meaning I have 
suggested, so that this is a fair example of the sixth type, in a 
very simple form. Evidently the contradiction is capable of 
being resolved; it is resolved into a joke. My next example is 
in every sense more serious. 

It is the Cause, it is the Cause (my soul). 

Let me not name it to you, you chaste Starres, 

It is the Cause. Yet He not shed her blood. 

Nor scarre that whiter skin of hers, then Snow, 

And smooth as Monumental Alabaster : 

{Othello^ V. ii.) 

The stress may be on it or on cause \ the capitals suggest the 
latter. This favours Dr. Johnson’s meaning: ‘It is not the act 
of murder that horrifies me here; it is the cause of it.’ But 
regarding the stress as on it (an actor should stress both) we are 
made to wonder what it was that was causing the tempest in his 
mind; and are given only the ‘irrelevant’ statement that it was 
the cause. If it is necessary to find one word for what was in his 
mind, I should myself plump for blood\ but it is no use assuming, 
for the ease of mind of the chaste stars of criticism, that one cause 
can be assigned, and one thing it is the cause of. There is no 
primary meaning for lack of information, and the secondary 
meaning, therefore, holds the focus of consciousness, that we are 
listening to a mind withdrawn upon itself, and baffled by its own 
agonies. As primary meanings of lY, however, thus thrust back 
among tht? apumptions, one might list his blackness, as causing 
her defection ; the universality of human lust (in both him and 


her), as causing her defection and his murder; her defection, as 

causing his horror and her death. 

Yet Othello *will not shed her blood, because that would be to 
display the animal now latent in her and be like the taking of a 
virginity. If she is chaste, it would be to stain her with the blood 
hidden even in her; if she is guilty but pitiful, it would be in- 
delicately to display the hypocrisy of her beauty, which ought in 
decency, like a tombstone, to be preserved; if she is guilty, it 
would be to stain Othello himself with the blood in Desdemona, 
which is so new a horror to him. Before calling this fantastic 
one must consider how many other hints of that symbolism can 
be found in the course of the death-scene; the marriage-sheets 
which were to be laid on the bed; ‘Aye, but not yet to die’; 
Othello’s phrase about ‘plucking the rose’; and the sword 
stolen from him as an emblem of cuckoldry. It is as a sort of 
parody of the wedding night, I think, that the scene is given its 
horror and Othello’s violence is made to seem inevitable. But 
independently of this latent comparison in the whole scene, 
which different people will absorb in different ways, the meaning 
of the particular line depends on Elizabethan associations with 
blood; Webster may have been remembering it when he made 
the White Devil say it the other way round : 

Oh, my worst sin was in my blood ; 

Now my blood pays for it. (v. vi.) 

It is the same doubt, expressed by a similar ‘irrelevance,’ 
which gives their extraordinary quality to the next two lines. In 
the line praising the skin of the creature he is enjoying the 
straightforward relief of a Marlowan hyperbole, so as to give 
himself strength by reviving what she had meant to him; he 
escapes for a moment the clash between love and hatred by an 
irrelevant praise about which he has no doubt, so that the effect 
is as if he thought her innocent. In the line about the tombstone 
the rhythm takes on a hushed and reflective horror, and mutters 
like the talk of vergers down an aisle; ‘It is fearful that her 
beauty should be such a lie ; it almost makes one doubt the whole 
story; under the calm of this effigy (already judged) one looks 
for an inscription accusing her murderer, and yet \yiAiin it is all 
uncleanness and already rotten.* 


You might say that this is a fundamental indecision on the 
point at issue, and should be put into the seventh type. But the 
point at issue is as to whether he will kill her,^ and there the 
decision is already made. Taking this for granted, so that it 
overshadows the speech, he is trying to believe it, trying to order 
his feelings about her in accordance with it, trying to make it 
seem tolerable in his mind. 

The strength of vagueness, in fact, is that it allows of secret 
ambiguity; it seems to have forced itself on nineteenth-century 
poets when they felt they needed ambiguity, but would have 
considered its more discoverable forms improper. If I may once 
more attempt to give reasons for this fact, it may spring from 
their respect for logical punctuation, from their admiration for 
simple ecstasies (it was no longer courtiers and administrators 
who wrote poetry), from their resulting admiration for smooth- 
ness of lyrical flow, and from the fact that the language had 
become less fluid, a less subtle mirror of the mind (though a 
more precise mirror of the scientific world), since the clarifying 
labours of the eighteenth century. This cult of vagueness 
produced the nonsense writers like Lear and Lewis Carroll (the 
Carpenter was a Castle; the Walrus, who could eat so many 
more oysters because he was crying into his handkerchief, was a 
Bishops in the chessboard scheme. It was the cult of vagueness 
which saved their extraordinary author from thinking himself a 
satirist); and the dowagers of Oscar Wilde’s plays, who by the 
gentle indiflFerence of their vagueness could give insults beside 
which violence must pale. My next example shows the extreme 
beauty which such a technique can sustain. 

One of the finest poems of W. B. Yeats is an example of an 
ambiguity of the sixth type, under the sub-heading ‘irrelevant 

Who will go drive with Fergus now. 

And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade, 
And dance upon the level shore ? 

Young man, lift up your russet brow. 

And lift your tender eyelids, maid. 

And brood on hopes and fears no more. 

oAnd no more turn aside and brood 
Upon Love’s bitter mystery; 


For Fergus rules the brazen cars, 

And rules the shadows of the wood, 

A|xd the white breast of the dim sea, 

And all dishevelled wandering stars. 

There is another poem in the volume explaining about Fergus. 
He appears as a king, who has left the judgment-hall, and the 
pleasures of the Court, and the chariot races by the seashore, 
who has grown weary of active life, and has sought out a Druid 
to be given the bag of dreams. The Druid warns him that 

No woman loves me, no man seeks my help. 

Because I be not of the things I dream. 

Fergus, insisting, is given the dreams and awakes to what tiiey 
imply, the intellectual or contemplative life, so that 

now I am grown nothing, being all. 

And the whole world weighs down upon my heart, 

and so that he cries out 

Ah ! Druid, Druid, how great webs of sorrow 
Lay hidden in the small slate-coloured bag ! 

One may notice the way a foreign idiom is implied by the two 
uses of how: ‘how great were the webs’ and ‘how the webs of 
sorrow lay hidden.’ 

The first poem, of course, assumes this story, but now may 
mean before or after the transformation. If after, the first line 
means: ‘Now that the awful example of Fergus is in front of 
you, surely you will not be so unwise as to brood?’; to drive 
with him would be to wander through the woods like a ghost, as 
he does ; the dancing would be that of the fairy child who danced 
upon the mountains like a flame and stole away the children. 
Or ‘Now who will be so loyal as to follow him?’ or ‘Can you 
be so cruel as to abandon him now ? ’ ; or with a different feeling : 
‘Now that Fergus knows everything, who will come and join 
in his meditations; who will share his melancholy and his know- 
ledge; which of you will pierce the mystery of the forest and 
rejoice in sympathy with the whole of nature ? ’ If before, so 
that the force of now is : ‘ There is still time to drive ^wtth Fergus, 
as he is still a king in the world,’ or ‘There is still time to give a 


warning, as the fatal thing has not yet happened’; then the first 
line gives: ‘Who will come out with the great figures of the 
Court, and join in their sensible out-of-door plei&ures?’ 

If before, the second verse means: ‘You need not brood, 
because Fergus is guardian of commonsense ; he is a strong man 
to drive war-chariots, as you should be ; he owns all the territory 
on which magic takes place ; he will keep it under decent con- 
trol; there is no need for you to worry about it.’ If after: ‘Do 
not brood; be warned by Fergus, who though still king, still 
technically in command of war-chariots, is true ruler only of the 
dim appurtenances of magic dreams,’ or, since there is no mis- 
taking the triumph of the line about cars into whatever melan- 
choly the verse trails away, ‘Remember that though Fergus is a 
great poet or philosopher or what not, though he drives some 
mythological chariot of the Muses,’ of whose details I am afraid 
I am ignorant, ‘yet even he, because these victories involved 
brooding, is reduced to the dim and ghostly condition of the last 
three lines.’ 

I said that an example of the sixth type must say nothing, and 
this poem says: ‘Do not brood.’ But the words have little of 
the quality of an order ; they convey rather : ‘ How strange and 
sad that you should still be brooding ! ’ ; and one may interpret 
variously the transition from advice to personal statement, from 
such of an imperative as was intended to the mere pain of loss, 
in the repetition of no more. ‘ I, in that I am Fergus, can no more 
turn aside from brooding,’ is a sort of false grammar by juxta- 
position, which may be felt in the line, and there is a suggestion 
that they must now lose their dreams, as they have already lost 
the real world, without getting an)rthing in exchange for either, 
‘All has grown bitter, and who can join in either activity of 
Fergus any longer?’ One might finally distinguish the erotic 
brooding of the young persons from the philosophical brooding 
of Fergus, which as hoping for nothing is at once grander and 
more empty; no doubt this distinction is only intended faintly, 
since it is part of the wisdom of the language of the poet that it 
treats these two as of the same kind. But, in so far as it is 
intended, it allows of an opposite meaning for ‘Do not brood’ 
— ‘ Do ndl ^jrood in this comparatively trivial fashion but go and 
drive with Fergus, who will teach you to brood about everjrthing. 


who will teach you to wander, untouchable, and all-embracing, 

in an isolation like that of the stars.’ 

The waveriftg and suggestive indefiniteness of nineteenth- 
century poetry is often merely weak. When, as here, it has a 
great deal of energy and sticks in your head, it is usually because 
the opposites left open are tied round a single strong idea; thus 
here, on the one hand, the condition of brooding is at once to be 
sought out and to be avoided; on the other, the poet, ‘nothing, 
being all,’ contemporaneously living all lives, may fitly be holding 
before him both the lives of Fergus, and drawing the same moral 
from either of them. 

In a sense the sixth class is included within the fourth. In the 
fourth class several feelings, several reactions to a complex situa- 
tion, are united by the writer, and can be accepted as a unity 
by the reader. The criterion for the sixth class is more verbal ; 
the same result may be achieved, but it must be by an evasive 
mode of statement. Thus the last example of my fourth chapter 
belongs by rights either to the fifth or to the sixth; I gave a 
rather nagging and irrelevant analysis of one of the great passages 
of Wordsworth, and complained that his theological statements 
were either so muddled or so evasive as not to disturb people of 
many shades of theological opinion. In a sense this is only to 
say that it is a sort of generalisation from theological opinions; 
Wordsworth is concerned with the resultant sentiments rather 
than the source of belief from which they are drawn. So one 
cannot say that he is contradicting himself, even by implication, 
because the theological ideas he has to invoke are not, so to speak, 
what he wants to make a statement about. I put it at the end of 
the fourth chapter, partly because in this sense the example is 
not a contradiction, and partly as a transition, to show how the 
same methods could be used for a different case. 

But the criterion for the sixth class is not merely verbal, in 
contrast with the psychological criterion of the fourth; indeed, 
if a poet is using language properly, it ought to be impossible to 
maintain such a distinction. So here, as cause or result of their 
verbal form, the examples of the sixth class convey an evasive 
frame of mind ; they show the author feeling that he will lose the 
attitude he is expressing if he looks at it too closely. Of course, 
the same verbal form may be used for an opposite reason, because 


he takes the solution of his contradiction for granted, and feels 
sure that he will be understood; I should not call this a genuine 
ambiguity in the sense with which I am concerned, and must 
claim not to have selected such examples for this chapter. 

But these two sorts of resolvable contradiction are alike in this : 
they assume that the reader understands a great deal already, and 
that he is able to guess by sympathy the way the contradiction 
must be resolved. They are both then similar to the nineteenth- 
century form of modishness, which worked by implying it was 
obviously too exhausted (by its wealth of experience, or by the 
inadequacy of everything in sight at the moment) to say or feel 
anything very positively, and that you were a fool if you didn’t 
already understand what it was taking for granted. (The corre- 
sponding thing at present is to express quite strong feelings, in a 
placid way, but feelings such as would only have occurred to a 
very active and widely informed sensibility, so that to the auditor 
they seem impressively inappropriate.) In its way such an 
evasiveness is a confession of weakness ; and it is chiefly by this 
lack of positive satisfaction in the contradiction, by this feeling 
that one could say the things more clearly but had much better 
not, that I should distinguish advanced examples of the sixth class 
from the definite statements of contradictions in the seventh.^ 

Most of the early examples in the seventh chapter belong to 
the sixth, if read as seems to be intended; I am putting them 
in the seventh to show the scale as a whole. 

The sixth type is related to the seventh much as the third is 
related to the fourth; in each case the earlier on my scale is more 
conscious because more superficial. W. B. Yeats’ poem contains 
both types; the doubt as to the meaning of now was, I take it, 
a ‘device,’ employed for compactness and to display the poet’s 
assumptions, and suchlike; the doubt as to the merits of brood- 
ing^ which I suggested later, is a ‘mood,’ or enshrines the poet’s 
permanent attitude to the word. It might be argued that the 
first doubt is of the sixth type, but the second of the seventh. 
To a consideration of the seventh I shall now proceed. 

^ The Herbert example in this chapter, which fits the logical criterion 
neatly, does not seem to fit the psychological one, as it is certainly not weak. 
But you could call it evasive ; because Herbert in writing about himself 
keeps a cerrai^ reserve. 


An example of the seventh t5rpe of ambiguity, or at any rate 
of the last type of this series, as it is the most ambiguous that 
can be conceived, occurs when the two meanings of the word, the 
two values of the ambiguity, are the two opposite meanings 
defined by the context, so that the total effect is to show a funda- 
mental division in the writer’s min^ You might think thht such 
a case could never occur and, if it occurred, could not be poetry, 
but as a matter of fact it is, in one sense or another, very frequent, 
and admits of many degrees. One might say, clinging to the 
logical aspect of this series, that the idea of ‘opposite’ is a com- 
paratively late human invention, admits of great variety of 
interpretation (having been introduced wherever there was an 
intellectual difficulty), and corresponds to nothing in the real 
world ; that —a .bis contrary to a for all values of b ; that words 
in poetry, like words in primitive languages (and like, say, the 
Latin altus, high or deep, the English let, allow or hinder), often 
state a pair of opposites without any overt ambiguity; that in 
such a pair you are only stating, for instance, a scale, which 
might be extended between any two points, though no two points 
are in themselves opposites; and that in searching for greater 
accuracy one might say ‘ 2 per cent, white ’ and mean a very black 
shade of grey. Or one might admit that the criterion in this last 
type becomes psychological rather than logical, in that the crucial 
point of the definition has become the idea of a context, and the 
total attitude to that context of the individual. 

A contradiction of this kind may be meaningless, but can never 
be a blank; it has at least stated the subject which is under dis- 
cussion, and has given a sort of intensity to it such as one finds 
in a gridiron pattern in architecture because it gives prominence 
neither to the horizontals nor to the verticals, and in a check 
pattern because neither colour is the ground on which the other 
is placed; it is at once an indecision and a structure, like the 
symbol of the Cross. Or it may convey an impression of con- 
scious ornamentation such as the Sumerians obtained, in the 
earliest surviving civilised designs, by putting two* beasts in 
exactly symmetrical attitudes of violence, as in supporting a 



coat-of-arms, so that whatever tendencies to action are aroused 
in the alarmed spectator, however he imagines the victim or the 
huntsman to have been placed, there is just the same claim on his 
exclusive attention, with a reassuring impossibility, being made 
on the other side, and he is drawn taut between the Wo similar 
impulses into the stasis of appreciation. You might relate it to 
the diflFerence of sound heard by the two ears, which decides 
where the sound is coming from, or to the stereoscopic contra- 
dictioiis that imply a dimension.^ 

Opposites, again, are an important element in the Freudian 
analysis of dreams ; and it is evident that the Freudian termin* 
ology, particularly the word ‘condensation,’ could be employed 
with profit for the understanding of poetry. Now a Freudian 
opposite at least marks dissatisfaction ; the notion of what you 
want involves the idea that you have not got it, and this again 
involves the ‘opposite defined by your context,’ which is what 
you have and cannot avoid. In more serious cases, causing wider 
emotional reverberation, such as are likely to be reflected in 
language, in poetry, or in dreams, it marks a centre of conflict; 
the notion of what you want involves the notion that you must 
not take it, and this again involves the ‘opposite defined by your 
context,’ that you want something different in another part of 
your mind. Of course, conflict need not be expressed overtly 
as contradiction, but it is likely that those theories of aesthetics 
which regard poetry as the resolution of a conflict will find their 
illustrations chiefly in the limited field covered by the seventh 

The study of Hebrew, by the way, and the existence of English 
Bibles with alternatives in the margin, may have had influence 
on the capacity of English for ambiguity; Donne, Herbert, 
Jonson, and Crashaw, for instance, were Hebrew scholars, and 
the flowering of poetry at the end of the sixteenth century corre- 
sponded with the first thorough permeation of the English 
language by the translated texts. This is of interest because 

^ It may be said that the contradiction must somehow form a larger unity 
if the final effect is to be satisfying. But the onus of reconciliation can be 
laid very heavily on the receiving end. One could, of course, also introduce 
much philosophical puzzling about the reconciliation of contradictions. The 
German tradition in the matter seems eventually based on Indian ideas, best 
worked out in Buddhism. But I daresay there is more than enough theoris- 
ing in the text here already. 



Hebrew, having very unreliable tenses, extraordinary idioms, and 
a strong taste for puns, possesses all the poetical advantages of a 
thorough priipitive disorder. 

I invoke primitive languages on the authority of Freud {Note- 
booksy vol. iv. No. lo), and cannot myself pretend to understand 
their mode of action. The early Eg5rptians, apparently, wrote 
the same sign for ‘young* and ‘old,* showing which was meant 
by an additional hieroglyphic, not to be pronounced, which may 
have taken the place of gesture in conversation. (This claim is 
anyway partly borne out by the standard dictionary of Ancient 
Egyptian.) They ‘ only gradually learnt to separate the two sides 
of the antithesis and think of the one without conscious com- 
parison with the other.* When a primitive Egyptian saw a baby 
he at once thought of an old man, and he had to learn not to do 
this as his language became more civilised. This certainly shows 
the process of attaching a word to an object as something extra- 
ordinary; nobody would do it if his language did not make him; 
and if one considers the typical propositions which can be 
applied to a baby, other than those as to its age, the opposite 
applies less to an old man than to a man in the prime of life. Evi- 
dently there are two ways in which such a word could be con- 
structed. It may mean, for instance, ‘no good for soldiers, 
because of age * ; it may have been thought of in connection with 
some idea which regarded the very young and the very old in 
the same way. Thus one speaks of the two ends of a stick, though 
from another point of view one of them must be the beginning. 
Or it may be important to remember that the notion of age 
excites conflict in almost all who use it; between recognising 
the facts about oneself, and feeling grown-up or feeling still 
young and strong. 

In so far as the opposites are used to resolve or to soften a 
conflict, so that an ageing man is not forced suddenly to find 
that a new and terrible word will apply to him, or can speak of 
himself as a young man by an easy and forgivable alteration of 
tone, to this extent there seems nothing peculiarly primitive 
about the sentiment, or the delicacy which allows it to be 
phrased; it has, perhaps, something primitive in its weakness of 
hold on external truth, and its honesty in voicing desires. And 
this form of the identity of opposites is not at all what one would 


expect from other properties of primitive languages; from the 
African grammars which insist on dealing with each case on its 
own merits ; from the vocabulary of the language of Terra del 
Fuego, which requires a separate noun for each thing that English 
would name by permuting nouns and adjectives; from the 
thousand different words in Arabic which describe the different 
sorts of camel. Indeed, Arabic is a striking case of the mental 
sophistication required to use a word which covers its own 
opposite, because, though it possesses many such words, they 
are of a late origin and were elaborated as a literary grace. The 
many examples one can find in English (a ‘restive’ horse, for 
instance, is a horse which is restless because it has been resting 
fo/ too long) are almost all later developments in the same way. 
So that I believe myself, though this is only a useful prejudice 
with which to approach the subject, that though such words 
appeal to the fundamental habits of the human mind, and are 
fruitful of irrationality, they are to be expected from a rather 
sophisticated state of language and of feeling. 

It seems likely, indeed, that words uniting two opposites are 
seldom or never actually formed in a language to express the 
conflict between them; such words come to exist for more 
sensible reasons, and may then be used to express conflict. Thus 
the Egyptian dictionary has much less doubt about the identity 
of ‘dead white’ and ‘dead black,’ a case for which it would be 
hard to invent a plausible conflict, than about the identity of 
‘young’ and ‘old.’ One reason is that people much more often 
need to mention the noticeable than the usual, so that a word 
which defines a scale comes to be narrowed down more and more 
to its two ends; the English ‘temper’ is an example of this. 
Another reason is that of relational opposites one cannot be 
known without the other; to know what a ruled person is you 
must know whether the ruler is a general or an archbishop. Thus 
a word which names both parts of a relation may be more precise 
than a word which only names half of it. Another reason is that, 
in complicated matters, you may know that there are two difficult 
cases which ought to be distinguished, but being anxious on the 
point you find it hard to remember which is which ; to the senses 
they ma5 »be opposite, but they excite the same feelings. Thus 
primitive painters make lines parallel when they know that they 


are so in fact ; but rather less primitive painters make them meet, 
equally often, on the horizon and at the eye of the observer. 
There was no conflict in their minds between these two ways of 
making lines converge; there was only a general anxiety as to 
the convergence of lines. In so far, in short, as you know that 
two things are opposites, you know a relation which connects 

This discussion is in some degree otiose because I really do 
not know what use the Egyptians made of their extraoVdinary 
words, or how ‘primitive* we should think their use of them if 
we heard them talking; whereas I have, at any rate, a rough idea 
of how the words are being used in the examples which follow. 
I have been searching the sources of the Nile less to explain 
English verse than to cast upon the reader something of the awe 
and horror which were felt by Dante arriving finally at the most 
centrique part of earth, of Satan, and of hell. 

Quando noi fummo l^, dove la coscia 

Si volge appunto in sul grosso dell* anche. 

La Duca con fatica e con angoscia 
Volse la testa ov* egli avea le zanche. 

We too must now stand upon our heads, and are approaching 
the secret places of the Muse. 

When a contradiction is stated with an air of conviction it may 
be meant to be resolved in either of two ways, corresponding to 
thought and feeling, corresponding to knowing and not knowing 
one’s way about the matter in hand. Grammatical machinery 
may be assumed which would make the contradiction into two 
statements; thus 'p and — />* may mean: ‘If a—a^y then/); if 
a=a2y then —/).* If Ci and ^2 are very different from one another, 
so that the two statements are fitted together with ingenuity, 
then I should put the statement into an earlier tjrpe ; if and ^2 ^re 
very like one another, so that the contradiction expresses both the 
need for and the difficulty of separating them, then I should 
regard the statement as an ambiguity of the seventh type corre- 
sponding to thought and knowing one’s way about the matter 
in hand. But such contradictions are often used, as it were by 
analogy from this, when the speaker does not know what 
and flg he satisfies two opposite impulses and. afe a sort of 
apology, admits that they contradict, but claims that they are 


like the soluble contradictions, and can safely be indulged; by 
admitting the weakness of his thought he seems to have sterilised 
it, to know better already than any one who miglit have pointed 
the contradiction out ; he claims the sympathy of his audience 
in that ‘we can none of us say more than this,’ and gains dignity 
in that even from the poor material of human ignorance he can 
distil grace of style. One might think that contradictions of this 
second sort (corresponding to feeling, and not knowing one’s 
way about the matter in hand) must always be foolish, and even 
if they say anything to one who understands them can quite as 
justifiably say the opposite to one who does not. But, indeed, 
human life is so much a matter of juggling with contradictory 
impulses (Christian-worldly, sociable-independent, and such- 
like) that one is accustomed to thinking people are probably 
sensible if they follow first one, then the other, of two such 
courses; any inconsistency that it seems possible to act upon 
shows that they are in possession of the right number of prin- 
ciples, and have a fair title to humanity. Thus any contradiction 
is likely to have some sensible interpretations ; and if you think 
of interpretations which are not sensible, it puts the blame on you. 

If ‘/) and — /)’ could only be resolved in one way into: ‘If 
«==«!, then/); if then — it would at least put two state- 
ments into one. In many cases the subsidiary uses of language 
limit very sharply the possible interpretations, and the ambiguity 
is only of this sensible sort. But it is evident that any degree of 
complexity of meaning can be extracted by ‘interpreting’ a con- 
tradiction; any and may be selected, that can be attached 
to some arising out of />; and any such pair may then be read 
the other way round, as ‘If then/); ii then 

— /).’ The original contradiction has thus been resolved into an 
indefinite number of contradictions: ‘If 

to each of which the same process may again be applied. Since 
it is the business of the reader to extract the meanings useful 
to him and ignore the meanings he thinks foolish, it is evident 
that contradiction is a powerful literary weapon. 

Thus the seventh type of ambiguity involves both the anthro- 
pological idea of opposite and the psychological idea of context, 
so that it Jfnjjst be approached warily. I shall begin by listing 
some very moderate and sensible examples, some of merely 


linguistic interest, and showing how they may be considered as 
examples of this type. I hope that the later examples will leave 
no doubt that ft is different from both the earlier types which 
approximate to it. 

At any rate, the conditions for this verbal effect are not those 
of a breakdown of rationality; I should take as an example, for 
instance (of the conditions, though not of the effect), these very 
straightforward and martial words of Dry den : 

The trumpefs loud clangour 
Invites us to arms 

With shrill notes of anger 
And mortal alarms. 

The double double double beat 
Of the thundering drum 
Cries, heark the Foes come ; 

Charge, charge, ’tis too late to retreat. 

{Song for St. Cecilia's Day.) 

It is curious on the face of it that one should represent, in a 
mood of such heroic simplicity, a reckless excitement, a feverish 
and exalted eagerness for battle, by saying (in the most prom- 
inent part of the stanza from the point of view of final effect) 
that we can’t get out of the battle now and must go through with 
it as best we can. Yet that is what has happened, and it is not a 
cynical by-blow on the part of Dryden ; the last line is entirely 
rousing and single-hearted. Evidently the thought that it is no 
good running away is an important ingredient of military en- 
thusiasm ; at any rate in the form of consciousness of unity with 
comrades, who ought to be encouraged not to retreat (even if 
they are not going to, they cannot have not thought of it, so that 
this encouragement is a sort of recognition of their merits), and 
of consciousness of the terror one should be exciting in the foe ; 
so that all elements of the affair, including terror, must be part 
of the judgment of the most normally heroic mind, and that, 
since it is too late for him to retreat, the Lord has delivered him 
into your hands. Horses, in a way very like this, display mettle 
by a continual expression of timidity. 

This extremely refreshing way of understanding the elements 
of a situation, and putting them down flatly to act jjs^a measure 
of excitement, is a characteristic of Dryden; and a much more 


universal characteristic of good poetry, by the way, than most 
we have considered so far. It is not, for instance, due to the 
habits of the English language; and Dryden’s u^e of it is con- 
nected with the Restoration wish to tidy the language up, make 
it more rational, and produce something transferable which 
would be respected on the Continent. Dryden is not interested 
in the echoes and recesses of words; he uses them flatly; he is 
interested in the echoes and recesses of human judgment. (One 
must remember in saying this the critics who have said he was 
interested in rhetoric but not in character; the two things are 
compatible.) He is doing the same thing in the grand patriotic 
close of King Arthur, when on a public occasion, after magicians 
and spirits from machines have explained the glories of England 
that shall come after, the king replies, as from the throne : 

Wisely you have, whatever will please, reveal’d, 

What wou’d displease, as wisely have conceal’d. 

The remark is sharp but not damping; is quite different from 
the generous depression of Johnson which is a development from 
it; shows a power of understanding a situation while still feeling 
excited; and is not the sort of thing any one would have the 
courage to say on such an occasion nowadays. 

Such a mode of expression comes nearer to verbal ambiguity 
when it may be analysed in terms of the incidental conveniences 
of language, such as sound-effects, and thus put into the first 

I taught my silkes, their whistling to forbeare, 

Even my opprest shoes, dumb and speechlesse were. 

(Donne, Elegy, iv. 51.) 

Dumb and speechlesse have the same meaning, but their sound 
describes the silence and the noise, respectively, to which his 
attention is directed. 

It is worth noting that opprest is a pun, and taught a metaphor ; 
because he is in a mood of adventure and generalship which 
makes him personify his property, as men have named their 
swords, through a heightened interest in their qualities and a 
sharper sense of participation in their actions. 

oh, too common ill, I brought with me 
That, which betrayed me to mine enemy. 


Everything he has brought into this alien house is his own in- 
vading army; it is a personal betrayal when he is discovered 
through his pel fume : 

Onely, thou bitter sweet, whom I had laid 
Next mee, mee traiterously hast betraid. 

— a metaphor drawn from political textbooks, about the spy in 
the council-chambers of princes; in the same way opprest means 
both ‘even when I put my weight upon them’ and ‘podf good 
creatures, what a trial it must have been for them not to cry out 
before my path, and proclaim the greatness of their master ! ’ 

I taught my treads evenly and cautiously; silkes and again 
whistling give the rustle of the rich cloak, which for two strides 
has swung loose, as he tiptoes down the passage. Forbeare, both 
from its even and compelling sound, from its quieting and re- 
pressive meaning, from the finality of its rhyme with their, and 
from the renewed emphasis this rhyme gives to the rhythm of 
his strides, shows him catching the thing again, and hushing it. 

Forbeare, then, is normal onomatopoeia, but speechlesse, or a 
word like ‘hush,’ is not; on the contrary, its sound is a noise 
that will carry some distance. You make it partly from an 
excitement that finds relief in contrast, partly because it suggests 
the sounds you are afraid of and are listening for, partly in order 
to make a noise which your confederates will hear even when it 
is said softly, partly because, if only from being an unlikely sound 
for you to choose, it may easily be mistaken for a natural sound 
by your enemies. 

The second line illustrates both principles. Dumb and the 
pause before it, also were as rhyming with forbeare, give you the 
shoe put down in silence ; opprest, shoes, and speechlesse make it 
squeak in a surrounding ‘hush.’ ‘Even now, you see, the fools 
have not heard,’ or ‘This is what I am not letting it do’ ; by the 
placing of these sibilants we are brought to see at once the silence 
and caution of his advance, and, in contrast with it, the triumph 
and expectation with which he approaches her bedroom. 

And again, in part because of the vagueness of the definition, 
one may regard even quite casual expressions of relief, or the 
throwing off of anxiety, or what not, as of the seventh type. 
Thus Macbeth, faced suddenly with the Thaneship of Cawdor 


and the foreknowledge of the witches, is drowned for a moment 
in the fearful anticipation of crime and in intolerable doubts as 
to the nature of foreknowledge. Then, throwii^^ the problem 
away for a moment (he must speak to the messengers, he need 
not decide anything till he has seen his wife) — 

Come what come may. 

Time, and the Houre, runs through the roughest Day. 

Either,' if he wants it to happen: ‘Opportunity for crime, or the 
accomplished fact of crime, the crisis of action or of decision, 
will arrive whatever happens; however much, swamped in the 
horrors of the imagination, one feels as if one could never make 
up one’s mind. I need not, therefore, worry about this at the 
moment ’ ; or, if he does not want it to happen : ‘ This condition 
of horror has only lasted a few minutes ; the clock has gone on 
ticking all this time ; I have not yet killed him ; there is nothing, 
therefore, for me to worry about yet.’ These opposites may be 
paired with predestination and freewill: ‘The hour will come, 
whatever I do, when I am fated to kill him, so I may as well keep 
quiet ; and yet if I keep quiet and feel detached and philosophical 
all these horrors will have passed over me and nothing can have 
happened.’ And in any case (remembering the martial sugges- 
tion of roughest day), ‘Whatever I do, even if and when I kill 
him, the sensible world will go on, it will not really be as fearful 
as I am now thinking it, it is just an ordinary killing like the ones 
in the battle.’ 

Time and the Houre together take the singular, and yet you 
can parcel out the two opposites between them, as by making 
the hour the hour of action and time the rest of time, or detach- 
ment, so that they are opposites. These give the two opposed 
impulses, towards control, whether control over situation by 
committing the murder or over suggestion by not committing 
it, and towards yielding, whether yielding to fear so as not to 
act or to suggestion so as to act {Macbeth, i. iv. 134 uses the 
phrase yield to suggestion). Corresponding to these two there is 
a transitive or intransitive meaning of runs through*, time and 
the hour force the day to its foregone conclusion, as one runs a 
man through with a dagger, or time and the hour are, throughout 
the day, after all, always quietly running on. The remark does 


not seem as ambiguous as it is because it is a shelving of in- 
decision rather than an expression of it.^ 

And this, from the same play, is of the same sort. 


Is ripe for shaking, and the powers above 

Put on their instruments. Receive what cheer you may, 

The Night is long, that never finds the Day. 

(Act IV. end.) 

‘Villains are punished in the end’ is the cheerful part'of the 
meaning; but not till the end of the play; we have no reason to 
suppose that this night is a short one or will end just yet. Receive 
what cheer you may, followed by a comma as in the Folio, should 
be imperative: ‘Be as cheerful as you can,’ or could mt£n: 
‘However cheerful you may be there is a long night before us.’ 
Death is a long night that will never find day, and we will bring 
that darkness on Macbeth if we can ; but on the other hand he 
may bring it on us. 

The total effect is cheerful enough, but not because these 
opposites are ill-balanced; the overtone is a stoical sense that 
one cannot alter the length of a night, and that human affairs 
are too brief and uncertain for it to be worth while becoming 
agitated about them. 

No less complete opposites are a normal property of the 
language of faint and distant innuendo : 

In her youth 

There is a prone and speechlesse dialect 
Such as move men. 

{Measure for Measure, i. ii. 185.) 

This is the stainless Isabel, being spoken of by her respectful 
brother. Prone means either ‘inactive and lying flat’ (in retire- 
ment or with a lover) or ‘active,’ ‘tending to,’ whether as moving 
men, by her subtlety or by her purity, or as moving in herself, for 
pleasure or to do good. Speechlesse will not give away whether 
she is shy or sly, and dialect has abandoned the effort to distin- 
guish between them. The last half-line makes its point calmly, 
with an air of knowing about such cases; and, indeed, I feel very 

indelicate in explaining Claudio’s meaning. It is difficult to put 


^ I realise that this analysis seems too elaborate, and yet I caS^inot sec what 
else (what less) the line means if it is taken seriously as meaning anything. 


the workings of the mind into a daylight which alters their pro- 
portions without an air either of accusation or of ribaldry; he is 
making no moral judgment of his sister's character, and only 
thinking that as a weapon against Angelo she is well worth 
being given a try. 

And, for an extreme but illuminating example of the triviality 
with which this class is compatible, consider 

Blood hath bene shed ere now, i' the olden time. 

Ere humane Statute purg’d the gentle Weale ; 

{Macbeth, iii. iv. 75.) 

where gentle might just as well be, and suggests, ‘ungentle,’ 
because the weal is conceived as ‘ungentle* before it purged 
and gentle afterwards. 

In general, an adjective by showing where it is to be applied, 
and assuming it makes a genuine distinction, can always imply 
its opposite elsewhere. But there is usually a crux as to where 
it is to be implied, and by whom; all that can strictly be deduced 
from the use of an adjective with a noun is that the author believes 
that, at some place and some time, some one might not have 
used the same adjective with the same noun. So that this form 
of implication, though normal to the idea of an adjective, takes 
effect only when the context brings it out. 

Even when there is a more serious difference between the 
two meanings, it often does not matter which of two ‘opposites’ 
is taken, because the sentence already contains a paradox which 
includes both of them. For these and similar reasons, poetry 
has a surprising amount of equilibrium; bowdlerisation, for 
instance, is often comically helpless to alter the spirit of a 

I remember some critic saying that the whole attitude to life 
which crystallised out round Pope, all that jaunty defiance against 
mystery and disorder, all that sense of personal rectitude, in that 
it is virtue enough to have been sensible, all that faith in the 
ultimate rationality, even the ultimate crudity, of the world, 
were summed up in the lines which introduce the Essay on Man, 
Let us — 

Expatiate free o’er all this scene of man; 

A mighty maze ! But not without a plan. 


To those who think this a just piece of criticism it must always 

seem curious that Pope originally wrote 


A mighty maze, and all without a plan, 

and then altered it to its present form because his friends told 
him this conflicted with his religious views. (A case, perhaps, 
such as was contemplated a few lines later : 


Laugh where we must, be candid where we can^ 

Bui vindicate the ways of God to man.) 

My point is that this is not really a joke against the critic, because 
the two lines are very nearly the same; a maze is concei^^ed 
as something that at once has and has not got a platiy so that, 
whichever you say, you are merely expanding the notion already 

A maze may be said to have no plan^ when it was designed 
with a plan to start with, but the plan has since been lost, or at 
any rate is not being shown to you. Or it may be said to have 
no plan when it is merely an untidy set of walks, and there are 
a variety of ways of getting to the centre. Or it might (these are 
the meanings that Pope was not allowed) mean that there is no 
way of getting to the centre, or even no recognisable centre at 
all. But if this were known to be the case it would be useless to 
try and expatiate over the thing, and incorrect to call it a maze. 
Pope’s original antithesis was nearer that between art and nature 
than that between a Christian’s hope and despair; it was jaunty 
and secure because he implied it was worth looking about, 
whether the maze had a plan or not; and because, in either case, 
it was possible to understand a great deal about the scene of 
man^ merely by not falling into absurdities. Or one may regard 
the contradiction between having and not having a plan^ so far 
as it went, as already implied, not only in the noun, but in the 
noun and adjective respectively: mighty ^ ‘this is a large and diffi- 
cult matter, to which we must give all our attention,’ but mazey 
a quaint affair, stirring to the imagination perhaps but still 
mundane, something that would go well in one’s private grounds 
if one were doing things on a grand scale, as woujd^'a Greek 
temple or the parish church for that matter, and though entailing 


tedium and inconvenience still a suitable occupation for a 

From this point of view, to admit it might rot have a plan 
while taking for granted it was capable of having a plan made 
for it, this confession of doubt is the final expression of security ; 
shows the fading from consciousness of any further need for the 
encouragement of external faith; views from outside and has 
learnt not to imagine the isolation of the heart of man. 

Misreadings of poetry, as every reader must have found, often 
give examples of this plausibility of the opposite term. I had 
at one time a great admiration for that line of Rupert Brooke’s 

The keen 

Impassioned beauty of a great machine, 

a daring but successful image, it seemed to me, for that contrast 
between the appearance of effort and the appearance of certainty, 
between forces greater than human and control divine in its 
foreknowledge, which is what excites one about engines; they 
have the calm of beauty without its complacence, the strength of 
passion without its disorder. So it was a shock to me when I 
looked at one of the quotations of the line one is always seeing 
about, and found that the beauty was unpassioned, because 
machines, as all good nature-poets know, have no hearts. I still 
think that a prosaic and intellectually shoddy adjective, but it is 
no doubt more intelligible than my emendation, and sketches 
the same group of feelings. 

Evidently the simplest way for the two opposites defined by 
the context to be suggested to the reader is by some disorder in 
the action of the negative; as by its being easily passed over or 
too much insisted upon. Thus in the Keats Ode to Melancholy 

No, no; go not to Lethe ; neither twist 

tells you that somebody, or some force in the poet’s mind, must 
have wanted to go to Lethe very much, if it took four negatives 
in the first line to stop them. The desire to swoon back into 
pure sensation, abandonment of the difficulties of life, femininity 
(from the masculine point of view), or death from consumption 
is taken for granted in the reader, and this is powerful as a means 

2o6 seven types of AMBIGUITY 

of putting it there. And on the other hand, we must consider 
such effects as 

My God, my God, look not so sharp upon me ; 

Adders and serpents, let me breathe awhile; 

Ugly Hell gape not: come not, Lucifer; 

ril burn my books. Ah Mephistophelis. 

(Marlowe, Faustus.) 

where there is no stress, as a matter of scansion, on the negatives, 
so that the main meaning is a shuddering acceptance, that 
informs the audience what is there. But behind this there is also 
a demand for the final intellectual curiosity, at whatever cost, 
to be satisfied : 

Let Ugly Hell gape, show me Lucifer; 

so that perhaps, behind all his terror, it is for this reason that he 
is willing to abandon his learning, that he is going to a world 
where knowledge is immediate, and in those flames his books 
will no longer be required. Faustus is being broken ; the depths 
of his mind are being churned to the surface; his meanings 
are jarring in his mouth; one cannot recite Ugly Hell gape not 
as a direct imperative like ‘stop gaping there’; and it is evident 
that with the last two words he has abandoned the effort to 
organise his preferences, and is falling to the devil like a tired 

Shakespeare’s use of the negative is nearly always slight and 
casual ; he is much too interested in a word to persuade himself 
that it is ‘not’ there, and that one must think of the opposite 
of its main meaning. 

There’s not a shirt and a half in all my company; and the half- 
shirt is two napkins tacked together and thrown over the shoulders 
like a herald’s coat without sleeves; and the shirt, to say the truth, 
stolen from my host at St. Alban’s, or the red-nosed innkeeper of 

^ A critic said that my interpretation here is wrong because the actor is 
meant to scream with horror not sound like a tired child. Certainly ‘ tired 
child * is a bit off the point. But the more the actor screams the stressed 
words the less the audience hears the unstressed words ‘ not * ‘ not.* 

In many languages new forms for expressing the negative have been intro- 
duced, because the old form being unstressed becomes progressively harder 
to hear. Hence the French pas etc. and the English do with the negative. 
This is clear evidence that the unstressed negative gets lost ir -conveniently 
often. For that matter press correspondents regularly cable "he quaint and 
expensive grammatical form not repeat not. 


There lives not three good men unhanged in all England, and 
one of them is fat and grows old. 

There’s not three of my hundred and fifty left) alive, and they 
are for the town-end, to beg during life. 

One must bear FalstafF in mind when considering how Shake- 
speare came to write 

Mar. Tullus Aufidius, is he within your walls ? 
ist Sen. No, nor a man that fears you lesse than he ; 

'that’s lesser than a little. (Cor., i. iv. 13.) 

The boast was to have been that nobody feared Marcius in the 
whole town, any more than the hero Aufidius feared him; the 
second line, at any rate, can have no other point; but on second 
thoughts that might have implied Aufidius feared him a great 
deal, since the town could not plausibly claim to be braver than 
its admitted leader. So more was changed to lesse \ the first line 
became a statement of Aufidius’ courage; if you are puzzled for 
a moment by the negatives, fear you lesse evidently means that 
somebody is very brave ; the second line insists that somebody 
else is even braver ; and if the sentence is said quickly it certainly 
sounds like a sharp reply. At any rate it is doing its best with 
the difficulty of not implying the vvrong thing, in that no obvious 
emendation is more sensible. Such muddles with negatives are 
common enough in Elizabethan writings ; like Spenser’s 

Thus did she watch, and weare the weary night 
In waylful plaints, that none was to appease ; 

Now walking soft, now sitting still upright, 

As sundry chaunge her seemed best to ease. 

Ne lesse did Talus suffer sleep to seaze 
His eyelids sad, but watcht continually. 

Lying without her door in great disease ; 

Like to a spaniel wa5rting carefully 

Lest any should betray his lady treacherously. 

{Faerie Queene^ v. vi. 26.) 

No more than Britomart did Talus allow sleep to seaze his eyelids 
sad; on the other hand, no less than Britomart did he suffer in 
great disease. And, ignoring this verbal attraction, the parts of 
the lines are thought of as quite separate pieces of ornamentation, 
laid on flatly; suffer sleep to seaze is translated into ‘go to sleep 
— try to kdfep awake’ without thinking about Ne lesse (=‘So 

2o8 seven types of AMBIGUITY 

too ’). I have quoted the whole verse to show how impossible 
it would be to have any other reading, once you have got into the 
movement. It is important to bear in mind this attitude to 
grammar; once these floating and ill-attached parts of speech 
are crushed together into a pun (cease, as it were, to obey the 
pure gas laws) it is a matter, not of calculation, but of experiment, 
to see what corrections to the formula must be applied. 

Perhaps the strangest case of Spenser’s indifference to irrelev- 
ant meaning, lack of stress upon syntax, and readiness to push 
words quite flatly, without apology, into their place in the pattern, 
occurs during one of the descriptions of a dragon. 

And at the point two stings infixed arre 

Both deadly sharpc, that sharpest steele exceedeth farre. 

But stings and sharpest steele did far exceed 

The sharpnesse of his cruell rending clawes. 

(l. Xi. II-I2.) 

Both these statements mean the opposite of what they say; steel 
— stings — claws are in ascending, not as a grammarian would 
suppose in descending, order of sharpness. It must seem an 
extraordinary degree of perversity which made exceedeth a 
singular verb, agreeing with the two stings ^ thought of as a single 
weapon according to the usual Elizabethan practice, or with the 
abstract idea, not stated till the next verse, of their sharpness ^ so 
that its only obvious subject is steel. But I doubt if Spenser 
gave it any attention; the main point of the lines is to compare 
stings with steely as of a similar degree of sharpness, and to say 
they are both exceedingly sharp. 

I should connect a certain blankness in the meaning of this 
example with a much more rational failure on the part of Merth 
to say what she intended. 

What bootes it all to have, and nothing use ? 

Who shall him rewe, that swimming in the maine. 

Will die for thirst, and water doth refuse ? 

Refuse such fniitlesse toile, and present pleasures chuse. 

(ii. vi. 17.) 

Since the maine in Spenser is always the sea, the lady has chosen 
an absurdly bad example, at first sight only for the ;^ke of the 
rhyme. But it is not the duty of a poet to put good arguments 


into the mouths of persons with whom he disagrees, and it is 
rather a profound evolutionary by-blow, which fits in very well 
with Spenser’s sensuous idealism, that such a marbdoes not drink 
the sea- water because it will hurt him and because it tastes nasty. 

Shakespeare sometimes throws in a ‘ not ’ apparently to suggest 
extra subtlety: 

Lenox. And the right valiant Banquo walked too late, 

Whom you may say (if ’t please you) Fleans kill’d, 

For Fleans fled: Men must not walke too late. 

Who cannot want the thought, how monstruous 

It was for Malcolme, and Donalbaine 

To kill their gracious Father ? {Macbeth, in. vi.) 

Who can avoid thinking, is the meaning; but the not breaks 
through the irony into ‘Who must not feel that they have not 
done anything monstrous at all ? ’ ‘ Who must not avoid thinking 
altogether about so touchy a state matter ? ’ This is not heard as 
the meaning, however, the normal construction is too strong, and 
the negative acts as a sly touch of disorder. 

There is an altered sign in Troilus serving a similar purpose : 

Pand. If ever you prove false one to another ... let all constant 
men be Troiluses, all false women Cressids^ and all brokers-between 
Pandars. (iii. ii. 216.) 

The correction to ‘ unconstant ’ is wrong because this was evid- 
ently said well on the front of the apron-stage, an address straight 
to the audience, which appealed to what everybody knew was 
going to be the story; he is pointing to each in turn, ‘you know 
what we puppets stand for, it is a strong simple situation,’ at the 
end of the scene. 

It is not so much that ‘not’ was said lightly and might easily 
be ignored as that it implied a conflict (or why should you be 
saying one of the innumerable things the subject was noty instead 
of the one thing it was})y and it was upon this conflict, rather 
than upon the value of the passage as information, that the 
reader’s sympathy devolved. 

Stone walls do not a prison make, 

Nor iron bars a cage ; 

Minds innocent and quiet take 
That for a hermitage. 


(To Althea,) 


The point of the poem is to describe those services that are 
freedom; constancy to a mistress, loyalty to a political party, 
obedience to God, and the limited cosiness of good company; 
thus to focus its mood, to discover what shade of interpretation 
Lovelace is putting on the blank cheque of a paradox, is in a 
sense to define the meaning of not in the first two lines. This is 
done to some extent by the grammar of the verse itself. 

That may be ‘the fact that they do not make a prison,' and 
we are then told that this notion withdraws the mind, a'fe if to a 
hermitage^ from the anxieties of the world. But on the face of 
it, that is the cage or prison itself, and by being singular, so that 
it will not apply to walls or bars, it admits that they do, in fact, 
make even for quiet minds a prison and a cage. It is curioub to 
read ‘those’ instead of thaty and see how the air of wit evaporates 
and generous carelessness becomes a preacher’s settled desire to 
convince. If you read ‘them’ there is a further shift because 
the metre becomes prose ; the sentiment might be by Bunyan, 
and one wonders if it is at all true. 

However, this experiment has hardly a fair chance, as there is 
another ambiguity which gives the verse recklessness, with an 
air both of paradox and of reserve. Take is a verb active in feel- 
ing though presumably here passive in sense; thus though it 
mainly says, ‘such minds accept prison for their principles and 
can turn it into a hermitage,’ there is some implication that ‘such 
minds imprison themselves, escape from life, perhaps escape 
from their mistress, into jail, and cannot manage without their 
martyrdom.’ It is the proximity of quiet which hushes this 
meaning, and keeps it from spoiling the proportions of the poem 
as a whole ; ‘such persons, madam, were aware of the advantages 
of retiring from the world, and are accepting their misfortune 
with some philosophy.’ There is another shade of meaning 
which is almost ‘mistake,’ as in ‘cry you mercy, I took you for a 
joint-stool ’; ‘such minds may be so innocent that they know 
no difference between a prison and a hermitage’; for this they 
may be mocked or revered, but it is with irony that the poet 
includes himself among them; or ‘so quiet that they pretend 
not to know the difference,’ with a saintly impertinence that 
would have pleased George Herbert. « 

All these meanings are no more than slight overtones or grace- 


notes; the main meaning is sufficiently brave and is conveyed 
with enough fervour to stand alone ; thus, looking back to that, 
it may after all refer to walls and bars, and be attracted into the 
singular by the neighbouring hermitage. 

I shall close the mild section of the seventh type with the most 
rational possible form of depraved negative, which puts some- 
thing into your head while telling you it is not part of the picture. 
Thus Swinburne’s 

When the blood of thy foemen made fervent 
A sand never moist from the main . . . 

On sands by the storm never shaken 
Nor wet from the washing of tides . . . 


is not so much defining the sand of the arena as dragging in the 
sand of the sea, which has not so far been mentioned; by this 
simple device with negatives (Greek choruses are fond of it) he 
brings in the idea of Venus as born from the sea and, for himself 
if not for the reader, his whole pack of associations about the 
Great Sweet Mother. 

Or for an even flatter use : 

. . . behind her Death, 

Close following pace for pace, not mounted yet 
On his pale horse . . . {Paradise Lost, x. 590.) 

where, as saints in windows carry a gridiron, not for use, but 
because it is expected of them, or as the newspapers tell you there 
is no news to-day about the latest murder, so the pale horse is 
mentioned because people like to be reminded it is sometimes 

There is another Shakespearean negative in one of the songs 
of Ophelia, an irrelevant little word in itself, which supports a 
faint but an elaborate reverberation of feeling; becomes, to an 
attent ear, a full ambiguity; and drapes about itself for a moment 
the whole structure of the play. 

Oph. White his Shrow'd as the Mountaine Snow. 

Que. Alas looke heere my Lord. 

Oph. Larded with sweet flowers: 

jVhich bewept to the grave did not go. 

With true-love showres. {Hamlet, iv. v.) 


Evidently Pope was right in leaving out not from the point of 
view of the song considered as detached from the play.^ Which 
may refer to tke shroud^ the mowy or tht flowers \ anyway true- 
love showres contains a metaphor connecting them. The situa- 
tions o{ flowers and the corpse may be either parallel or opposed 
with regard to mourners ; and it may be either flowers, if they 
are dewy, or human mourners, who weep, or do not weep, for 
the corpse. 

It is easy to forget Ophelia’s situation, and feel that she was a 
sweet pathetic creature, and it was somehow natural that she 
should be crazy. She has been told that because she obeyed her 
father her lover has gone mad ; her lover has certainly abandoned 
her with insults, and has certainly, with indifference, killed iier 

The Shrow'dy then, is white because it covers one who is so 
noble and so valuable to her and because it is soon to be stained 
with corruption; it is glimmering before her mind’s eye. Not 
may negate going or weeping. That the ear expects did go may 
mean that all nature wept for Polonius; that it gets did not go 
may mean he was interred in hugger-mugger (probably without 
any shroud); that it expects did go may mean Polonius is dead 
and buried; that it gets did not go may mean that, whether 
Hamlet wept for him or not, he went first into the lobby where 
he was safely stowed] that it expects did go may mean that 
Hamlet is dead to her, that she feels he must really be dead and 
she ought to weep for him, and that he is going to England at 
the risk of his life ; that it gets did not go may mean that he is not 
really dead, that she must not weep for one who is alive and 
has so wronged her (the end of their love was not his death but 
his murder of her father), and that he is going to come back 
from England safely. She may alter the song through an echo 
of the misanthropy of her lover, from a feeling thdX flowers ought 
not to be mixed up with corpses, that the plucked flowers are 
the objects on a bier that ought really to be mourned for, though 
they are not. Or the dead man of the song may be Hamlet’s 

^ I seem to have missed the point of the song taken alone. The apparent 
shroud of the snow is really a protection for the coming flowers of the spring, 
and therefore need not be wept. But this theological hope for t> e dead man 
of the song acts as a source of pathos while you consider the people Ophelia 
had in mind. 


father, so that the whole scene is a sort of satire against the 
Queen. I must consider the whole scene to insist upon this point. 

Ophelia, when mad, is used as much to refer* to other char- 
acters’ histories as her own, being an inspired figure, or merely 
the reverberation of the play. The irony against the Queen is 
not intended, then, as in Ophelia’s own mind; it is partly an 
isolated dramatic irony and partly a device to put us inside the 
guilty mind of the Queen, ‘full of artless jealosy,’ to whom ‘each 
toy seems prologue to some great amiss.’ She begins the scene 
by refusing to speak with her, but Ophelia enters with reverence, 
as an ambassador with news, or in ironical accusation. 

{Enter Ophelia distracted.) 

* Oph. Where is the beauteous Majesty of Denmark? 

There may be a meaning such as Hamlet has elaborated ; ‘ where 
is the vanished dignity of a world which has gone rotten?’; but 
she makes her exit with the same dignity.^ 

Oph. How should I your true love know from another one? 

By his Cockle hat and staff e^ and his Sandal shoone. 

‘How should I know which of your husbands is your true love, 
you whose reality escapes me. Which is the true pilgrim for his 
mistress’s favour, the Ghost doomed for a certain time to walk 
the earth, the bloat King who has lost his peace of mind to win 
you, or your loving son you have just sent from me to his death 
in England ? ’ 

Que. Alas sweet Lady; what imports this Song? 

Oph. Say you? Nay, pray you marke. 

He is dead and gone Lady, he is dead and gone^ 

At his head a grass-greene Turfe, at his heeles a stone. 

‘Pray you marke; the one you have killed already was the true 
one, and even the turf and stone will not keep him down. And 
it is my dead father, not Hamlet, who truly loved me.’ 

{Enter King.) 

It is he who is walking now, not the Ghost, as the Queen’s true 

Que. Nay but Ophelia. 

Oph. Pray you marke ; 

^ The pJtnt is that by dropping this initial brick she establishes herself 
with the audi<5nce as a figure who is expected to drop more important bricks 


and she sings the song I have quoted. From this point of view it 
is the Ghost whose Shrozo^d is so wkitCy and the Queen’s look here 
recalls : ‘look here, upon this picture and on this.’ In so far as old 
Hamlet went to the grave he did not go unwept^ but he went wept 
falsely by his Queen, also, perhaps, unwept by flowers^ without 
approval of nature, in that he died unshriven; in so far as he did 
not go to the grave he walked the earth, and so caused weeping. 

But I am not sure that this is a complete example of the 
seventh type. There are too many implications, all ‘rather 
distant, for a genuine pair of opposites to collide; one must 
distinguish between mere wealth of relevance to the setting (first 
type), mere disorder of preferences united in a single act of the 
sensibility (fourth to sixth types) and an impulse to state efii- 
phatically ‘the two opposites defined by the context’; for this 
poor Ophelia, in the exhaustion of her wreckage, can hardly put 
in a claim. I have put the example here as a particularly 
elaborate use of the negative; it might have gone well enough 
among the dramatic ironies in the first chapter. 

Keats often used ambiguities of this type to convey a dissolu- 
tion of normal experience into intensity of sensation. This need 
not be concentrated into an ambiguity. 

Let the rich wine within the goblet boil 
Cold as a bubbling well 

is an example of what I mean; and the contrast between cold 
weather and the heat of passion which is never forgotten through- 
out St. Agnes* Eve. It is the ‘going hot and cold at once’ of 
fever. The same method is worth observing in detail when in 
the Ode to Melancholy it pounds together the sensations of joy 
and sorrow till they combine into sexuality. 

No, no: go not to Lethe, neither twist 

Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine : 

Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kissed 
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine ; 

Make not your rosary of yewberries, 

Nor let the beetle nor the death-moth be 
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl 

A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries ; 

For shade to shade will come too drowsily, 

And dull the wakeful anguish of the soul.^^^ 

^ The whole poem is quoted gradually. 


One must enjoy the didactic tone of this great anthology piece ; 
it is a parody, by contradiction, of the wise advice of uncles. 
‘ Of course, pain is what we all desire, and I am j|ure I hope you 
will be very unhappy. But if you go snatching at it before your 
time, my boy, you must expect the consequences; you will 
hardly get hurt at all.’ 

‘Do not abandon yourself to melancholy, delightful as that 
would be, or you will lose the sensations of incipient melancholia. 
Do nof think always about forgetting, or you will forget its pain. 
Do not achieve death, or you can no longer live in its shadow. 
Taste rather at their most sharp the full sensations of death, of 
melancholy, and of oblivion.’ But I have paraphrased only for 
my own pleasure ; there is no need for me to insist on the con- 
trariety of the pathological splendours of this introduction. 

Opposite notions combined in this poem include death and 
the sexual act, a pair of which I must produce further examples; 
pain and pleasure, perhaps as a milder version of this; the con- 
ception of the woman as at once mistress and mother, at once 
soothing and exciting, whom one must master, to whom one 
must yield ; a desire at once for the eternity of fame and for the 
irresponsibility of oblivion; an apprehension of ideal beauty as 
sensual ; and an apprehension of eternal beauty as fleeting. The 
perfection of form, the immediacy of statement, of the Ode, lie 
in the fact that these are all collected into the single antithesis 
which unites Melancholy to Joy. Biographers who attempt to 
show from Keats’s life how he came by these notions are ex- 
cellently employed, but it is no use calling them in to explain 
why the poem is so universally intelligible and admired ; evid- 
ently these pairs of opposites, stated in the right way, make a 
direct appeal to the normal habits of the mind. 

But when the melancholy fit shall fall 

Sudden from Heaven like a weeping cloud. 

That fosters the droop-headed flowers all. 

And hides the green hill in an April shroud ; 

Weeping produces the flowers of joy which are themselves sorrow- 
ful; the hill is green as young, fresh and springing, or with age, 
mould and geology; April is both rainy and part of springtime; 
and the ihroudy an anticipation of death that has its own energy 
and beauty, either is itself the fact that the old hill is hidden 

2i6 seven types of AMBIGUITY 

under green, or is itself the grey mist, the greyness of falling rain, 
which is reviving that verdure. 

TheA glut thy sorrow on a morning rose, 

Or on the iiainbow of the salt sand wave, 

Or on the wealth of globed peonies. 

Either: 'Give rein to sorrow, at the mortality of beauty,’ or 
' defeat sorrow by sudden excess and turn it to joy, at the intensity 
of sensation.’ Morning is parallel to April, and pun with 
mourning; the flowers stand at once for the more available 
forms of beauty, and for the mistress who is unkind. 

Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows 
Imprison her soft hand, and let her rave, 

And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes. 

She dwells with Beauty, Beauty that must die, 

And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips. 

Bidding adieu, and aching Pleasure nigh, 

Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips; 

Aye, in the very Temple of Delight 
Veiled Melancholy hath her sovran shrine. 

She is at first thy mistress, so that she represents some degree of 
joy, however fleeting; then, taking the verse as a unit, she 
becomes Veiled Melancholy itself ; veiled like a widow or holding 
up a handkerchief for sorrow, or veiled, like the hill under its 
green, because at first sight joy. Very and sovran, with an air of 
making a distinction and overcoming the casual prejudice of the 
reader, now insist that this new sort of joy is in part a fusion of 
joy and melancholy, sovran means either ‘melancholy is here 
deepest,’ or ‘this new production is the satisfactory (and attract- 
ive) kind of melancholy’; and she is veiled because only in the 
mystery of her ambivalence is true joy to be found. 

Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue 
Can burst joy’s grape against his palate fine ; 

‘Can burst the distinction between the two opposites; can 
discover the proud and sated melancholy to which only those are 
entitled who have completed an activity and achieved joy.’ 

His soul shall taste the sadness of her might 
And be among her cloudy trophies hung. 


If sadness here was taken as an attribute of melancholy only, 
as the only unambiguous reading must insist, we should have a 
tautology which no amount of historical allusion could make 
sensible; though melancholy meant Burton and Hamlet and 
sadness meant seriousness, it would still be like Coleridge’s 

So sad and miff; oh I feel very sad. 

She has* become yoy, melancholy^ and the beautiful but occasion- 
ally raving mistress \ the grandeur of the line is unquestioned 
only because everybody takes this for granted. 

Her trophies (death-pale are they all) are cloudy because vague 
and faint with the intensity and puzzling character of this fusion, 
or because already dead, or because, though preserved in verse, 
irrevocable. They are hung because sailors on escaping ship- 
wreck hung up votive gifts in gratitude (Horace, iii. i.), or 
because, so far from having escaped, in the swoon of this achieve- 
ment he has lost life, independence, and even distinction from 

No doubt most people would admit that this is how Keats 
gets his effects, but the words are not obviously ambiguous be- 
cause, in the general wealth of the writing, it is possible to spread 
out one to each word the meanings which are actually diffused 
into all of them. 

I began this chapter with references to Freud; this last 
example may show how what is accepted as intelligible poetry 
may be considered as an association of opposites such as would 
interest the psycho-analyst. However, in the Keats Ode it is 
more obvious that opposites are being employed than that they 
are such as to interest the psycho-analyst; in the following 
examples from Crashaw it is more obvious that the psycho- 
analyst would be interested than that opposites are being 
employed. Crashaw’s poetry often has two interpretations, 
religious and sexual; two situations on which he draws for 
imagery and detail. But are these both the context which is to 
define the opposites, or is he using one as a metaphor of the 
other, so that the ambiguity is of the first type, or each as a 
metaphorA)f each, so that it is of the third ? Is he deceiving us 
about either, or just making a poem (detached from life) out of 

2i8 seven types of AMBIGUITY 

both ? Is he generalising from two sorts of experience, or finding 
a narrow border of experience that both hold in common ? These 
questions can only be answered for particular poems, and then 
only by a very detailed attention to the attitude taken up by the 
poet. Thus I put a poem by Herbert, I gave to Hope a watch of 
mine, into the third type, because it applied to the courting both 
of God and of a mistress, and laid these two forms of experience 
side by side, thinking them different, but not thinking of them 
in a different way. (P. ii8.) An example from Crashaw on the 
same theme was treated as graceful but comparatively trivial. 
However, when Crashaw is not being directly witty on this theme 
the situation is more complicated. Though he lays them side by 
side and talks about both the two forms of experience are* as 
different as possible; one is good, the other evil. The ‘context’ 
here is that a saint is being adored for her chastity, and the 
metaphors about her are veiled references to copulation. Such 
a passage, then, must be placed in my seventh class, because the 
context defines the two situations as opposites; two opposed 
judgments are being held together and allowed to reconcile 
themselves, to stake out different territories, to find their own 
level, in the mind. 

The great Hymn to the Name and Honour of the admirable 
Sainte Teresa is so innocently interpretable that I need only quote 
some passages to make this point clear. 

She never undertook to know 

What death with love should have to doe ; 

Nor has she e’er yet understood 

Why to show love, she should shed blood, 

Yet though she cannot tell you why, 

She can Love, and she can dy. 

Scarce has she Blood enough to make 
A guilty sword blush for her sake ; 

Yet has she a heart dares hope to prove 
How much lesse strong is death than love. 

. . . she breathes all fire ; 

Her weak breast heaves with strong desire 
Of what she may with fruitless wishes 
Seek for amongst her mother’s kisses. ^ 

I am not saying that this is an ambiguity ; it is the overt metaphor 


of Christ as her spouse. But the treatment of the metaphor 
amounts to a strange mixture of feeling. 

. . . some base hand have power to race 
Thy Brest’s chast cabinet, and uncase 
A soul kept there so sweet, O no; 

Wise Heaven will never have it so. 

Thou art love’s victime ; and must dy 
A death more mystical and high. . . . 

His is the dart must make the death 

Whose stroke shall taste thy hallowed breath. . , . 

O how oft shalt thou complain 
Of a sweet and subtle pain. 

Of intolerable joyes ; 

Of a DEATH, in which who dyes 
Loves his death, and dyes again. 

And would for ever be so slain. 

And lives, and dyes; and knowes not why 
To live. But that he thus may never leave to dy. 

Oh thou undaunted daughter of desires ; we may echo upon the 
poet his praise of the heroine.^ How hard it is to keep this set 
of symbols far enough away from the no less charming set 
employed, not thirty years later, by Dryden: 

The Youth, though in haste, 

And breathing his last. 

In pity died slowly, while she died more fast. 

Till at length she cried. Now, my dear, now let us go, 

Now die, my Alexis, and I will die too. 

{Marriage a la Mode.) 

You might think I was being merely malicious in this colloca- 
tion ; trying to defile a Holy Thought by making it into a Dirty 
Joke. But the two systems of thought are not as unlike as all 
that; Crashaw certainly conceived the bliss of the saints as 
extremely like the bliss which on earth he could not obtain 
without sin; and this certainly was a supply of energy to him 
and freed his virtue from the Puritan sense of shame. Dryden, 
in the same sort of way, is bringing a direct and unassuming 

^ Crashaw could easily have laughed back at me here. He could have said 
that the Enfflish are always provincial, and that as a European scholar he was 
enriching me language with a normal piece of Counter-Reformation verse. 
But this claim^for his own good sense would not, I think, make the convention 
he was using any less strange. 


attitude towards sexuality into relation with the heroic manner 
of his serious plays, in which people do indeed die for one 
another rather easily ; and the views of life contrasted in the song 
are no less oddly connected in the whole play it was written for. 
Of course, its main point is to be funny ; he is using the metaphor 
chiefly as a rag of decency and to laugh at the mystics. But it is 
also one of those mutual comparisons which benefit both parties ; 
the natural act is given dignity, the heroic act tenderness and a 
sort of spontaneity. Or if we can only consider it as a simple 
comparison, still by a sort of public feeling (like that which is the 
most real sentiment of his tragedies) he gives the subject a dignity 
which is the root of his gaiety; the joke is rather against human 
pretensions than human sentiments; there is no suggestion, 
after all, that they would not really have died for each other ; and 
the strongest resultant feeling, stronger than those of wit, of 
grace, and of impertinence, is a pathos not far from the central 
sentiment of Christianity. ‘Pleasure is exhausting and fleeting; 
qu^elle est triste^ la jeunesse\ nothing is to be valued more 
than mutual forbearance; and it is harder to be happy, even 
under the most favourable circumstances, than anybody would 
have supposed.’ 

I have been talking as if Crashaw really thought the bliss of 
the saints was like that of the sexes, but, of course, this is too 
simple ; we only know that he feels and writes as if it were. One 
must consider, to understand such a use of language, not only 
what is being described but what terms the speaker has to de- 
scribe it in; upon what basis of experience it is being conceived. 
One must not say that Crashaw described a sensual form of 
mysticism, only that he was content to use sexual terms for his 
mystical experiences, because they were the best terms that he 
could find. You may say, then, that this use of metaphor is not 
ambiguous at all, but it is certainly similar to ambiguity in a 
peculiar way; some people who think this a beautiful poem are 
reading it in a very different way from others who would agree 
with them.^ And to find reasons for the fact that any particular 
person reads it in any particular way, that he allows any par- 

^ I hope I may again claim in a footnote that the puzzle as to wiat the term 
* ambiguity * ought to mean was not dropped as the book went forward, 
however far I was from solving it. 


ticular settlement of territory between the two opposite modes of 
judgment, one would have to know a great deal about him. 
Indeed the way in which a person lives by thej^P vaguely-con- 
ceived opposites is the most important thing about his make-up ; 
the way in which opposites can be stated so as to satisfy a wide 
variety of people, for a great number of degrees of interpretation, 
is the most important thing about the communication of the arts. 
It is in this sort of way that I must justify my use of these odd 
passagt^ as a culmination. 

One feels, in fact, about much of Crashaw’s verse, not that it 
is in itself particularly ambiguous, but that the ideas involved are 
so unfamiliar, are used in his judgments with such complexity 
that to think of it as ambiguous may be the right mode of 
approach. This epigram, for instance, is straightforward enough 
from its own point of view : 

Suppose he had been Tabled at thy Teates, 

Thy hunger feeles not what he eates : 

Hee’l have his Teat eVe long (a bloody one) 

The Mother then must suck the Son. 

{Luke xi.. Blessed be the paps that thou hast sucked,) 

This is to show the unearthly relation to earth of the Christ, and 
with a sort of horror to excite adoration. The antithesis assumes 
he was an ascetic even at the breast, and suppose he had half 
refuses to admit that he was once a baby, a parasite and an animal. 
Tabled, perhaps, also means ‘taught,’ whether the natural or the 
Judaic law; suppose would then mean that being ever virgin he 
never learnt it. The second couplet is ‘primitive* enough; a 
wide variety of sexual perversions can be included in the notion 
of sucking a long bloody teat which is also a deep wound. The 
sacrificial idea is aligned with incest, the infantile pleasures, and 
cannibalism; we contemplate the god with a sort of savage 
chuckle ; he is made to flower, a monstrous hermaphrodite deity, 
in the glare of a short-circuiting of the human order. Those 
African carvings, and the more lurid forms of Limerick, inhabit 
the same world. 

The grotesque seventeenth-century simile, of which this is a 
striking but in no way unique example, belongs to an age of 
collectionfe of interesting oddities rather than to the scientific 
(eighteenth-century) age, with its limitations as to what is likely 


to be true and what it is sensible to say ; to an age when all kinds 
of private fancies were avowable on their own rights.^ In con- 
sidering what<J:he time would have called the ‘curious’ attitude 
of Crashaw here, we must remember the Cambridge Platonist 
who explained to the learned world that his breast smelt like 
violets, and the remarks on the same subject by Montaigne. 
One is sometimes driven to find ambiguities, or to become 
conscious of them, in mere surprise that such a thing should 
have been said ; whereas the fact is that that age was interested 
quite simply in such harmless reflections as a child might make 
to the embarrassment of the dinner-table. It is fair to give 
another example of this from Dryden, in which he now appears 
the more innocent and childlike of the two. (It is, of course,- an 
early work.) Upon the death of the Lord HastingSy from smallpox : 

Blisters with pride swell’d, which thr’row’s flesh did sprout 
Like Rose-buds, stuck i’ th’ Lilly-skin about. 

Each little Pimple had a tear in it, 

To wail the fault its rising did commit. . . . 

Or were those gems sent to adorn his Skin 
The Cabinet of a richer Soul within? 

One is tempted to look around, as I did in the Crashaw quatrain, 
for some additional reasons, some strange causes at work, which 
would make the sorrowing parents feel satisfaction in this ; but 
the machinery^ of analysis would be irrelevant here ; they just 
thought it was ‘curious,’ and therefore graceful. 

These steadying reflections must be borne in mind when we 
consider how the following quatrain came to be thrust into 
Crashaw’s translation of the Dies Irae. 

O let thine own soft bowels pay 

Thy self; And so discharge that day. 

If sin can sigh, love can forgive. 

O say the word my Soul shall live. 

Something weird and lurid in their apprehension of the 
sacrificial system, a true sense of the strangeness of the mind’s 
world, can continually be felt in the seventeenth-century mystics. 
I call it ambiguous, not from any verbal ingenuity of its own, 
but because it draws its strength from a primitive system of ideas 

' In this and the following example I gather that Crashaw wcs not following 
contemporary models from Catholic European literature. 


in which the uniting of opposites (of saviour and criminal, for 
instance) is of peculiar importance. Of course, you may as well 
say it is ambiguous to use any idea which involves fundamental 
antinomies; the idea of relation itself, very likely; but I am here 
concerned only with ambiguities which are of literary interest 
and can be felt as complex when they are apprehended. 

That day (of judgment) may either assume ‘on’ or be object of 
discharge. Discharge has a variety of similar meanings centering 
round ^unload,’ such as pay, prohibit, exonerate and dismiss; 
all these yield slightly different meanings. But evidently the 
main meaning, sustained by the pun, is ‘and so discharge thy 
soft bowels’; it is a brave use of that Biblical metaphor or 
pliysiological truth, according to which the bowels are made 
active by sympathy and are the seat of compassion. I find it 
difficult to have any clear reaction to this other than ‘what fun, 
all the Freudian stuff’; but there seems to be no doubt that it 
involves a curious ambivalence of feeling. The patriarchal view 
of the matter is not merely an exotic idiom; it is well known and 
felt to be serious ; but among people more civilised and anxiously 
delicate than they the metaphor is suppressed (in the New Testa- 
ment it is already a relic of language), and the facts on which it is 
based are either ignored or recognised only, as in those rather 
schoolboy verses by Swift, as a culmination of horror at the night- 
mare of the human mechanism. Though Crashaw takes it in his 
stride he is deliberately invoking a clash much harsher than the 
previous one with Dry den (p. 221). Popular language only recog- 
nises a yearning of the bowels towards some one (‘You are the 
sort of person one could afford to signalise love for in such a 
way’) as a mark of contempt so terrible as to degrade also the 
contenmer. The same violent and deeply-rooted ambivalence 
is the point of that magnificent obscenity in the Dunciad (ii. 83) 
where Jupiter by receiving the petitions of humanity with a 
travesty of the ancient symbol of compassion makes the in- 
difference of God disgusting and the subservience of man 

Crashaw seems to escape from these conflicts, and it may be 
that the oddity of the metaphor was only intended to give a sort 
of wit ano^ point to the pun on discharge such as I have put in the 
third class, and thought peculiar to the eighteenth century. But 


the two opposite interpretations are active in the verse, though in 
so subdued a form ; he is viewing himself as wholly united and 
subdued to Gpd, made part of God’s body, since this metaphor 
is tolerable ; and if we may rely on the idea of infantile modes of 
judgment it is as an extreme exercise of humility that he returns 
to them. ‘ Forgive me by a compassion as if for yourself ; regard 
me merely as part of the tribe with which you are united.’ 

So far I have regarded this pair of opposites as in some degree 
accidental, as a historical matter of the clash of two metaphors. 
Freud, however, would regard the pair as a natural unit, as the 
mark of a deep-seated conflict in the child between an infantile 
pleasure in defecating and the need to learn more adult pleasures. 
Assuming such a conflict, its opposites will always suggest One 
another : ‘ I must pay God with the most valuable thing possible ; 
therefore I must pay God with dung, because that is the most 
worthless thing possible. But his own dung is the most valuable 
sort conceivable, and matters of this kind have to be kept strictly 
private ; it will be much best, then, if I can induce him to pay 
himself with that.’ To find an image for the purest love, for 
the generosity furthest from sexuality, he falls back on sexuality 
in its most infantile and least creditable form. 

No context is more important than that which defines God 
and dung as opposites, and it is proper that they should have 
been brought into this chapter. But how Crashaw arrived at the 
quatrain I have been considering, what his public thought when 
they read it, I cannot pretend to know. Probably they just 
thought it curious and Biblical and let it go at that. 

I shall end this chapter with a more controlled and intelligible 
example from George Herbert, where the contradictory impulses 
that are held in equilibrium by the doctrine of atonement may 
be seen in a luminous juxtaposition. But in such cases of 
ambiguity of the seventh type one tends to lose sight of the 
conflict they assume; the ideas are no longer thought of as 
contradictory by the author, or if so, then only from a stylistic 
point of view; he has no doubt that they can be reconciled, and 
that he is stating their reconciliation. So I shall first consider a 
sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Windhover, to Christ 
our Lord, as a more evident example of the use oi poetry to 
convey an indecision, and its reverberation in the mind. 


I caught this morning morning's minion, king- 
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn falcon, in his riding 
Of the level underneath him steady air, and striding 
High there ; how he rung upon the rein of a winrpling wing 
In his ecstasy. Then back, back forth on swing 
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bowbend; the hurl and 

Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding 

Stirred for a bird, the achieve of, the mastery of the thing. 

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh air, pride, plume, here 
Buckle ; and the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion 
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, oh my chevalier. 

No wonder of it. Sheer plod makes plough down sillion 
* Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear. 

Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold- vermilion. 

I am indebted to Dr. Richards for this case ; he has already 
Avritten excellently about it. I have little to add to his analysis, 
and use it here merely because it is so good an example. 

Hopkins became a Jesuit, and burnt his early poems on enter- 
ing the order; there may be some reference to this sacrifice in 
the fire of the Sonnet. Confronted suddenly with the active 
physical beauty of the bird, he conceives it as the opposite of his 
patient spiritual renunciation ; the statements of the poem appear 
to insist that his own life is superior, but he cannot decisively 
judge between them, and holds both with agony in his mind. 
My heart in hiding would seem to imply that the more dangerous 
life is that of the Windhover, but the last three lines insist it is 
no wonder that the life of renunciation should be the more lovely. 
Buckle admits of two tenses and two meanings: ‘they do buckle 
here,’ or ‘ come, and buckle yourself here ’ ; buckle like a military 
belt, for the discipline of heroic action, and buckle like a bicycle 
wheel, ‘make useless, distorted, and incapable of its natural 
motion.* Here may mean ‘in the case of the bird,’ or ‘in the case 
of the Jesuit'; then ‘when you have become like the bird,* or 
‘when you have become like the Jesuit.’ Chevalier personifies 
either physical or spiritual activity; Christ riding to Jerusalem, 
or the cavalryman ready for the charge; Pegasus, or the Wind- 
hover. Ji 

Thus in' the first three lines of the sestet we seem to have a 


clear case of the Freudian use of opposites, where two things 
thought of as incompatible, but desired intensely by different 
systems of judgments, are spoken of simultaneously by words 
applying to both; both desires are thus given a transient and 
exhausting satisfaction, and the two systems of judgment are 
forced into open conflict before the reader. Such a process, one 
might imagine, could pierce to regions that underlie the whole 
structure of our thought; could tap the energies of the very 
depths of the mind. At the same time one may doubt whether 
it is most effective to do it so crudely as in these three lines; this 
enormous conjunction, standing as it were for the point of friction 
between the two worlds conceived together, affects one rather 
like shouting in an actor, and probably to many readers the lines 
seem so meaningless as to have no effect at all. The last three 
lines, which profess to come to a single judgment on the matter, 
convey the conflict more strongly and more beautifully. 

The metaphor of the fire covered by ash seems most to insist 
on the beauty the fire gains when the ash falls in, when its 
precarious order is again shattered ; perhaps, too, on the pleasure, 
in that some movement, some risk, even to so determinedly static 
a prisoner, is still possible. The gold that painters have used for 
the haloes of saints is forced by alliteration to agree with the 
gash and gall of their self-tortures ; from this precarious triumph 
we fall again, with vermilion, to bleeding.^ 

In great contrast with this proud but helpless suffering is a 
doctrinal poem by George Herbert, which uses the same methods. 
In ‘The Sacrifice,' with a magnificence he never excelled, the 
various sets of conflicts in the Christian doctrine of the Sacrifice 
are stated with an assured and easy simplicity, a reliable and un- 
assuming grandeur, extraordinary in any material, but unique as 
achieved by successive fireworks of contradiction, and a mind 
jumping like a flea. Herbert’s poems are usually more ‘ personal ’ 
and renaissance than this one, in which the theological system is 
accepted so completely that the poet is only its mouthpiece. 

^ Nearly all this analysis is only putting in the background ; the test is 
buckle.^ What would Hopkins have said if he could have been shown this 
analysis ? It is, perhaps, the only really disagreeable case in the book. If 1 
am right, I am afraid he would have denied with anger that heViad meam 
‘ like a bicycle wheel,* and then after much conscientious self-lorture woulc 
have suppressed the whole poem. 


Perhaps this, as a releasing and reassuring condition, is necessary 
if so high a degree of ambiguity is to seem normal. For, to this 
extent, the poem is outside the ‘conflict’ thecuy of poetry; it 
assumes, as does its theology, the existence of conflicts, but its 
business is to state a generalised solution of them. Here, then, 
the speaker is Jesus, the subject doctrinal, and the method that 
strange monotony of accent, simplicity of purpose, and rarefied 
intensity of feeling, which belong to a scholastic abstraction, 
come to life on the stage of a miracle play. 

They did accuse me of great villainy 

That I did thrust into the Deitie ; 

Who never thought that any robberie ; 

Was ever grief like mine ? 

Some said that I the temple to the floore 

In three days razed, and raised as before. 

Why, he that built the world can do much more. 

Was ever grief like mine? 

He is speaking with pathetic simplicity, an innocent surprise 
that people should treat him so, and a complete failure to under- 
stand the case against him; thus who in the third line quoted and 
he in the seventh make their point by applying equally to I and 
the Deitie, But before thinking the situation as simple as the 
speaker one must consider the use of the word rased to apply to 
the two opposite operations concerned ; and that the quotation 
from Jeremiah which makes the refrain refers in the original not 
to the Saviour but to the wicked city of Jerusalem, abandoned by 
God, and in the hands of her enemies for her sins. 

Then they condemn me all, with that same breath 

Which I do give them daily, unto death; 

Thus Adam my first breathing rendereth : 

Was ever grief like mine ? 

Hark how they cry aloud still Crucify, 

He is not fit to live a day, they cry; 

Who cannot live less than eternally. 

Was ever grief like mine ? 

Me ally ‘they all condemn me, they condemn the whole of me 
(I am Jerfiisalem and include them), they condemn me unto the 
total death of which I am not capable, they condemn me and 


thus call down their own destruction, I give them breath daily 
till their death, and unto death finally shall I give them’ ; so that 
rendereth includes ‘repay me for my goodness’ and ‘give up the 
ghost,’ both at their eventual death and in their now killing me. 
The same fusion of the love of Christ and the vindictive terrors 
of the sacrificial idea turns up in his advice to his dear friends not 
to weep for him, for because he has wept for both, when in 
his agony they abandoned him, they will need their tears for 
themselves. ‘ 

Weep not dear friends, since I for both have wept 

When all my tears were blood, the while you slept, 

Your tears for your own fortunes should be kept. 

Was ever grief like mine ? 

In each case, of course, the stress of the main meaning is on the 
loving-kindness of Jesus; it is only because this presentment of 
the sacrificial idea is so powerfully and beautifully imagined that 
all its impulses are involved. 

Now heal thyself. Physician, now come down ; 

Alas, I did so, when I left my crown 

And father’s smile for you, to feel his frown. 

Was ever grief like mine ? 

The secondary meaning (‘to make you feel ’) is a later refinement, 
and the Williams manuscript reads ‘to feel for you.’ 

The last verse of all contains as strong and simple a double 

But now I die ; Now, all is finished. 

My woe, man’s weal; and now I bow my head: 

Only let others say, when I am dead, 

Never was grief like mine. 

English has no clear form for the Oratio Obliqua. He may wish 
that his own grief may never be exceeded among the humanity 
he pities, ‘After the death of Christ, may there never be a grief 
like Christ’s ’ ; he may, incidentally, wish that they may say this, 
that he may be sure of recognition, and of a church that will be 
a sounding-board to his agony; or he may mean mine as a 
quotation from the others ^ ‘Only let there be a retribution, only 
let my torturers say never was grief like theirs, in the day when 


my agony shall be exceeded.’ (Better were it for that man if he 
had never been born.) 

I am not sure how far people would be willing to accept this 
double meaning ; I am only sure that after you have once appre- 
hended it, after you have felt this last clash as a sound, you will 
never be able to read the poem without remembering that it is 
a possibility. For the resultant meaning of this apparently 
complete contradiction, one must consider the way it is used as a 
religious doctrine; ‘Christ has made all safe, a weight is off our 
shoulders, and it is for that very reason far more urgent that we 
should be careful. Salvation is by Faith, and this gives an in- 
tolerable importance to Works. O death, where is thy sting; 
because the second death is infinitely terrible.’ You may say the 
pious Herbert could not have intended such a contradiction, 
because he would have thought it blasphemous, and because he 
took a ‘sunny’ view of his religion. Certainly it is hard to say 
whether a poet is conscious of a particular implication in his 
work, he has so many other things to think of; but for the first 
objection, it is merely orthodox to make Christ to insist on the 
damnation of the wicked (though it might be blasphemous, 
because disproportionate, to make him insist on it here without 
insisting more firmly at the same time on its opposite); and for 
the second objection, it is true George Herbert is a cricket in the 
sunshine, but one is accustomed to be shocked on discovering 
the habits of such creatures; they are more savage than they 

A memory of the revengeful power of Jehovah gives resonance 
to the voice of the merciful power of Jesus, even when verbal 
effects so pretty as these last cannot be found : 

Herod in judgment sits, while I do stand ; 

Examines me with a censorious hand. 

I him obey, who all things else command. 

Was ever grief like mine ? 

^ The poem makes the suffering and yearning Christ say ‘ I am the Lord 
of Hosts * — ‘ who never yet whom I would punish missed * — ‘ they in me 
deny themselves all pity * — ‘ see how spite cankers things.* The analysis 
is not digging up anything hidden. This, however, is not to say that Herbert 
would have passed it for print. It seems he sometimes had readers* work 
passed or to him by the licensing authorities, and it would be natural for him 
to consider ^rhether I ought to be published, not whether he ought to have 


Even in so quiet a line as the second, me is made to ring out with 
a triumphant and scornful arrogance — ‘the absurdity of the 
thing* — ^and thert^ is a further echo from the former dispensation 
in that his attitude of deference before Herod is one would give 
full play to his right hand and his stretched-out arm; that he 
will be far more furious in judgment than his judges; that 
one would stand to exert, as well as to suffer, power. 

Why, Caesar is their only king, not I. 

He clave the stony rock when they were dry ; 

But surely not their hearts, as I well try. 

Was ever grief like mine ? 

It is by its concentration that this is so powerful. The first 
line is part of his defence to his judges : ‘ I am not a political 
agitator.’ In the bitterness of this apology, that his kingdom is 
not of this world, he identifies Caesar with Moses as the chosen 
leader of Israel (‘Oh no, it was Caesar who gave them the water 
of life ; I am only an honest subject’), and by this irony both the 
earthly power of the conqueror and the legal rationalism of the 
Pharisees are opposed both to the profounder mercy of the 
Christ and to the profounder searchings of heart that he causes ; 
I may cleave their hearts with my tenderness or with their despair. 
Ah, how they scourge me ! yet my tenderness 
Doubles each lash ; and yet their bitterness 
Winds up my grief to a mysteriousness. 

Was ever grief like mine ? 

Doubles^ because I feel pain so easily, because I feel it painful 
that they should be so cruel, because I feel it painful they should 
be so unjust, because my tenderness enrages them, because my 
tenderness (being in fact power) will return equally each stroke 
upon them, because I take upon myself those pains also. Mys- 
teriousness ^ because the bitterness in them or (for various reasons) 
due to them produces grief no one can fathom, or because it 
dramatises that grief into a form that can show itself (as in 
initiation to the Mysteries) to a crowd (as the scourgers also are 
a crowd), wound up like a string to give out music, and echoing 
in the mind, repeatable, as a type of suffering. 

Behold they spit on me in scornful wise 
Who with my spittle gave the blind man eyes, 

Leaving his blindness to mine enemies. 

Was ever grief like mine ? 


Leaving his blindness wilfully, the conceit implies, as a cruel 
judgment upon my enemies, that they should in consequence spit 
upon me and so commit sin. (Father, forgiv'^ them, for they 
know not what they do.) These two events are contrasted, but 
that they should spit upon me is itself a healing; by it they dis- 
tinguish me as scapegoat, and assure my triumph and their 
redemption; and spitting, in both cases, was to mark my unity 
with man. Only the speed, isolation, and compactness of 
Herbert’s method could handle in this way impulses of such 
reach and complexity. 

Then on my head a crown of thorns I wear, 

For these are all the grapes Zion doth bear, 

Though I my vine planted and watered there. 

Was ever grief like mine ? 

So sits the earth’s great curse in Adam’s fall 

Upon my head, so I remove it all 

From the earth on to my brows, and bear the thrall. 

Was ever grief like mine ? 

The thorns of the curse upon Adam, the vdld grapes of the 
wicked city against which Isaiah thundered destruction, and the 
crown of z;m^-leaves of the Dionysiac revellers (and their de- 
scendants the tragedians), all this is lifted on to the head of the 
Christ from a round world, similar to it, in the middle distance; 
the world, no longer at the centre of man’s vision, of Copernican 
astronomy. The achievement here is not merely that all these 
references are brought together, but that they are kept in their 
frame, of monotonous and rather naive pathos, of fixity of doc- 
trinal outlook, of heartrending and straightforward grandeur. 

They bow their knees to me, and cry. Hail, King! 
Whatever scoffs or scomfulness can bring 
I am the floor, the sink, where they it fling. 

Was ever grief like mine ? 

Yet since man’s sceptres are as frail as reeds, 

And thorny all their crowns, bloody their deeds, 

I, who am Truth, turn into truth their deeds. 

Was ever grief like mine ? 

I, out of my mercy making their sins as few as possible, reflect 


that I am indeed a king, and so worthy of mockery; because all 
kings are as inferior (weak, outcast, or hated) as this; because 
I am king of kings, and all kings are inferior to me ; or because 
from my outcast kingship of mockery all real kingship takes its 
strength (the divine right of kings, for instance, and the relief of 
popular irritation under lords of misrule). He has united Herod 
and Pilate, ‘whose friendship is his enmity,’ and his scarlet robe 
of princes shows that only his blood ‘can repair man’s decay.’ 

Oh all ye who pass by, behold and see ; 

Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree. 

The tree of life, to all but only me. 

Was ever grief like mine ? 

The first line now at last, with an effect of apotheosis, gives 
the complete quotation from Jeremiah. He climbs the tree to 
repay what was stolen, as if he was putting the apple back; but 
the phrase in itself implies rather that he is doing the stealing, 
that so far from sinless he is Prometheus and the criminal. 
Either he stole on behalf of man (it is he who appeared to be 
sinful, and was caught up the tree) or he is climbing upwards, 
like Jack on the Beanstalk, and taking his people with him back 
to Heaven. The phrase has an odd humility which makes us 
see him as the son of the house ; possibly Herbert is drawing on 
the medieval tradition that the Cross was^ made of the wood of 
the forbidden trees. Jesus seems a child in this metaphor, 
because he is the Son of God, because he can take the apples 
without actually stealing (though there is some doubt about this), 
because of the practical and domestic associations of such a 
necessity, and because he is evidently smaller than Man, or at 
any rate than Eve, who could pluck the fruit without climbing. 
This gives a pathetic humour and innocence (except ye receive 
the Kingdom of Heaven as a little child, ye shall in no wise enter 
therein); on the other hand, the son stealing from his father’s 
orchard is a symbol of incest; in the person of the Christ the 
supreme act of sin is combined with the supreme act of virtue. 
Thus in two ways, one behind the other, the Christ becomes 
guilty; and we reach the final contradiction: 

Lo here I hang, charged with a world of sin 

The greater world of the two . . . 


as the complete Christ ; scapegoat and tragic hero ; loved because 
hated; hated because godlike; freeing from torture because 
tortured ; torturing his torturers because all-merci/ul ; source of 
all strength to men because by accepting he exaggerates their 
weakness; and, because outcast, creating the possibility of 

Between two theeves I spend my utmost breath. 

As he that for some robberie sulfereth. 
jAlas ! what have I stolen from you ? Death : 

^ Was ever grief like mine ? 

Herbert deals in this poem, on the scale and by the methods 
necessary to it, with the most complicated and deeply-rooted 
nofion of the human mind. 


I MUST devote a final chapter to some remarks about what 
I have been doing; about the conditions under which ambig- 
uity is proper, about the degree to which the understanding of 
it is of immediate importance, and about the way in which it is 

For the first of these the preface to Oxford Poetry^ 192,7, stated 
an opposition very clearly; that there is a ‘logical conflict, be- 
tween the denotary and the connotatory sense of words; between, 
that is to say, an asceticism tending to kill language by stripping 
words of all association and a hedonism tending to kill language 
by dissipating their sense under a multiplicity of associations.’ 
The methods I have been using seem to assume that all poetical 
language is debauched into associations to any required degree; 
I ought at this point to pay decent homage to the opposing power. 

Evidently all the subsidiary meanings must be relevant, be- 
cause an)rthing (phrase, sentence, or poem) meant to be con- 
sidered as a unit must be unitary, must stand for a single order 
of the mind. In complicated situations this unity is threatened ; 
you are thinking of several things, or one thing as it is shown by 
several things, or one thing in several ways. A sort of unity may 
be given by the knowledge of a scheme on which all the things 
occur; so that the scheme itself becomes the one thing which is 
being considered. More generally one may say that if an ambig- 
uity is to be unitary there must be ‘forces’ holding its elements 
together, and I ought then, in considering ambiguities, to have 
discussed what the forces were, whether they were adequate. 
But the situation here is like the situation in my first chapter, 
about rhythm; it is hard to show in detail how the rhythm acts, 
and one can arrive at the same result by showing the effects of 
the rhythm upon the meaning of the words. 

Some sort of parallel may be found in the way logical connect- 
ives (the statement of logical form in addition to logical content) 
are usually unnecessary and often misleading, because too simple. 
Omitting an adjective one would need ‘therefore,’ stressing the 
adjective ‘although’ ; both logical connections are im^died if the 
sentences are just put one after another. In the same way, people 



are accustomed to judge automatically the forces that hold 
together a variety of ideas; they feel they know about the forces, 
if they have analysed the ideas ; many forces, indee^, are covertly 
included within ideas ; and so of the two elements, each of which 
defines the other, it is much easier to find words for the ideas 
than for the forces. Most of the ambiguities I have considered 
here seem to me beautiful ; I consider, then, that I have shown 
by example, in showing the nature of the ambiguity, the nature 
of the fences which are adequate to hold it together. It would 
seem very ahificial to do it the other way round, and very tedious 
to do it both ways at once.^ I wish only, then, to say here that 
such vaguely imagined ‘forces* are essential to the totality of a 
poem, and that they cannot be discussed in terms of ambiguity, 
because they are complementary to it. But by discussing 
ambiguity, a great deal may be made clear about them. In 
particular, if there is contradiction, it must imply tension; the 
more prominent the contradiction,* the greater the tension; in 
some way other than by the contradiction, the tension must be 
conveyed, and must be sustained. . 

An ambiguity, then, is not satisfying in itself, nor is it, con-| 
sidered as a device on its own, a thing to be attempted ; it must' 
in each case arise from, and be justified by, the peculiar require- 
ments of the situation. On the other hand, it is a thing which 
the more interesting and valuable situations are more likely to 
justify. Thus the practice of ‘trying not to be ambiguous’ has a 
great deal to be said for it, and I suppose was followed by most of 
the poets I have considered. It is likely to lead to results more 
direct, more communicable, and hence more durable; it is a 
necessary safeguard against being ambiguous without proper 
occasion, and it leads to more serious ambiguities when such 
occasions arise. But, of course, the phrase ‘trying not to be 
ambiguous’ is itself very indefinite and treacherous; it involves 
problems of all kinds as to what a poet can try to do, how much 
of his activity he is conscious of, and how much of his activity he 
could become conscious of if he tried. I believe that the methods 
I have been describing are very useful to critics, but certainly 

^ I was claiming here a purity I had failed to attain. Many of the analyses 
in the book^re, I should say, convincing, if at all, through consideration of 
forces known ^ be at work in the poet’s mind, not by the verbal details used 
in illustration of them. However, this doesn’t affect the theoretical distinction. 


they leave a poet in a difficult position. Even in prose the belief 
in them is liable to produce a sort of doctrinaire sluttishness; 
one is tempted to set down a muddle in the hope that it will 
convey the meaning more immediately. 

As for the immediate importance of the study of ambiguity, 
it would be easy enough to take up an alarmist attitude, and say 
that the English language needs nursing by the analyst very 
badly indeed. Always rich and dishevelled, it is fast becoming 
very rich and dishevelled ; always without adequate ddVices for 
showing the syntax intended, it is fast throwing a^vay the few 
devices it had ; it is growing liable to mean more things, and less 
willing to stop and exclude the other possible meanings. A brief 
study of novels will show that English, as spoken by educafled 
people, has simplified its grammar during the last century to an 
extraordinary degree. People sometimes say that words are now 
used as flat counters, in a way which ignores their delicacy; that 
English is coming to use fewer of its words, and those more 
crudely. But this journalist flatness does not mean that the 
words have simple meanings, only that the word is used, as at a 
distance, to stand for a vague and complicated mass of ideas and 
systems which the journalist has no time to apprehend. The 
sciences might be expected to diminish the ambiguity of the 
language, both because of their tradition of clarity and because 
much of their jargon has, if not only one meaning, at any rate 
only one setting and point of view. But such words are not in 
general use ; they only act as a further disturbing influence on 
the words used already. English is becoming an aggregate of 
vocabularies only loosely in connection with one another, which 
yet have many words in common, so that there is much danger of 
accidental ambiguity, and you have to bear firmly in mind the 
small clique for whom the author is writing. It is to combat this 
that so much recent writing has been determinedly unintelligible 
from any but the precise point of view intended. 

Of the increasing vagueness, compactness, and lack of logical 
distinctions in English, the most obvious example is the news- 
paper headline. I remember a very fine one that went 

Italian Assassin Bomb Plot Disaster. , 


Here we have the English language used as a Chinese system of 


flat key-words, given particular meaning by noun-adjectives in 
apposition, or perhaps rather as an agglutinative system, one 
word one sentence, like Esquimo. I am told that American head- 
lines, however mysterious, are usually sentences; the English 
method is more complete. Bomb and plot^ you notice, can be 
either nouns or verbs, and would take kindly to being adjectives, 
not that they are anything so definite here. One thinks at first 
that there are two words or sentences, and a semicolon has been 
left out j!s in telegrams : ‘ I will tell you for your penny about the 
Italian AssSfesin and the well-known Bomb Plot Disaster * ; but 
the assasdriy as far as I remember, was actually not an Italian^ 
Italian refers to the whole aggregate, and its noun, if any, is 
dimster. Perhaps, by being so far separated from its noun, it 
gives the impression that the other words, too, are somehow 
connected with Italy \ that bombs y plots y and disasters belong 
both to government and rebel in those parts; perhaps Italian 
Assassin is not wholly separate in one’s mind from the injured 
Mussolini. This extended use of the adjective acts as a sort of 
syncopation, which gives energy and excitement to the rhythm, 
rather like the effect of putting two caesuras into a line ; but, of 
course, the main rhythm conveys : ‘ This is a particularly exciting 
sort of disaster, the assassin-bomb-plot type they have in Italy,’ 
and there is a single chief stress on bomb. 

Evidently this is a very effective piece of writing, quite apart 
from the fact that it conveys its point in a form short enough for 
large type. It conveys it with a compactness which gives the 
mind several notions at one glance of the eye, with a unity like 
that of metaphor, with a force like that of its own favourite 
bombs. Nor can I feel that it will be a disaster if other forms of 
English literature adopt this fundamental mode of statement, so 
interesting to the logician ; it is possible that a clear analysis of 
the possible modes of statement, and a fluid use of grammar 
which sets out to combine them as sharply as possible into the 
effect intended, may yet give back something of the Elizabethan 
energy to what is at present a rather exhausted language. The 
grammatical sentence is not the only form of statement in modem 
English, and I want to suggest that the machinery I have been 
using updi poetry is going to become increasingly necessary if 
we are to keep the language under control. 


I am not sure that I have been approaching this matter with 
an adequate skeleton of metaphysics. For instance, Mr. Richards 
distinguishes ^ poem into Sense, Feeling, Tone, and Intention; 
you may say an interpretation is not being done properly (if the 
analyst has conquered the country, still he is not ruling it) unless 
these four are separated out into sub-headings and the shades of 
grammar that convey the contents of each sub-heading are then 
listed in turn. But the process of apprehension, both of the 
poem and of its analysis, is not at all like reading a Kst; one 
wants as far as clarity will allow to say things in the form in 
which they will be remembered when properly digested. People 
remember a complex notion as a sort of feeling that involves 
facts and judgments ; one cannot give or state the feeling directly, 
any more than the feeling of being able to ride a bicycle; it is 
the result of a capacity, though it might be acquired perhaps by 
reading a list. But to state the fact and the judgment (the 
thought and the feeling) separately, as two diflFerent relevant 
matters, is a bad way of suggesting how they are combined; it 
makes the reader apprehend as two things what he must, in fact, 
apprehend as one thing. Detailed analysis of this kind might 
be excellent as psychology, but it would hardly be literary 
criticism; it would start much further back; and a mere reader 
of the poem would have to read a great deal of it to get the 
information he wanted. 

This notion of unity is of peculiar importance; not only, 
though chiefly, in poetry, but in all literature and most con- 
versation. One may remember, rather as a comparison than as 
an explanation, what Pavlov found in the brains of his dogs; 
that stimulation of a particular region produced inhibition, 
almost immediately, over regions in the neighbourhood, and at 
the region itself a moment later. Thus to say a thing in two parts 
is diflFerent in incalculable ways from saying it as a unit; Cole- 
ridge says somewhere that the mind insists on having a single 
word for a single mental operation, and will use an inadequate 
word rather than two adequate ones. When you are holding a 
variety of things in your mind, or using for a single matter a 
variety of intellectual machinery, the only way of applying all 
your criteria is to apply them simultaneously; the only way of 
forcing the reader to grasp your total meaning is to arrange that 


he can only feel satisfied if he is bearing all the elements in mind 
at the moment of conviction; the only way of not giving some- 
thing heterogeneous is to give something whicji is at every 
point a compound. 

My third heading is more important, as to the way in which 
ambiguity is apprehended. I have continually employed a 
method of analysis which jumps the gap between two ways of 
thinking; which produces a possible set of alternative meanings 
with soitie ingenuity, and then says it is grasped in the pre- 
consciousn^s of the reader by a native effort of the mind. This 
must seem very dubious; but then the facts about the appre- 
hension of poetry are in any case very extraordinary. Such an 
assumption is best judged by the way it works in detail; I shall 
only try here to make it seem plausible. 

We think not in words but in directed phrases, and yet in 
accepting a syntax there is a preliminary stage of uncertainty; 
‘the grammar may be of such or such a kind; the words are 
able to be connected in this way or in that.’ Words are seen as 
already in a grammar rather as letters are seen as already in a 
word, but one is much more prepared to have been wrong about 
the grammar than about the word. Under some drugs that make 
things jump about you see any particular thing moving or placed 
elsewhere in proportion as it is likely to move or be placed else- 
where, in proportion to a sort of coefficient of mobility which 
you have already given it as part of your apprehension. In the 
same way, a plausible grammar is picked up at the same time 
as the words it orders, but with a probability attached to it, and 
the less probable alternatives, ready, if necessary, to take its 
place, are in some way present at the back of your mind. 

In poetry much stress is laid on such alternatives; ‘getting to 
know’ a poet is largely the business of learning to control them. 
And as, to take another coefficient which the eye attaches to 
things, as you have an impression of a thing’s distance away, 
which can hardly ever be detached from the pure visual sensa- 
tion, and. when it is so detached leaves your eye disconcerted (if 
what you took for a wall turns out to be the sea, you at first see 
nothing, perhaps are for a short time puzzled as with a blur, and 
then see ‘lifferently), so the reading of a new poet, or of any 
poetry at alT, fills many readers with a sense of mere embarrass- 


ment and discomfort, like that of not knowing, and wanting to 

know, whether it is a wall or the sea. 

It is these faint and separate judgments of probability which 
unite, as if with an explosion, to ‘make sense’ and accept the 
main meaning of a connection of phrases; and the reaction, 
though rapid, is not as immediate as one is liable to believe. 
Also, as in a chemical reaction, there will have been reverse or 
subsidiary reactions, or small damped explosions, or slow wide- 
spread reactions, not giving out much heat, going o» concur- 
rently, and the final result may be complicated by^preliminary 
stages in the main process, or after-effects from the products of 
the reaction. As a rule, all that you recognise as in your mind 
is the one final association of meanings which seems sufficiently 
rewarding to be the answer — ‘now I have understood thaV\ it 
is only at intervals that the strangeness of the process can be 
observed. I remember once clearly seeing a word so as to under- 
stand it, and, at the same time, hearing myself imagine that I 
had read its opposite. In the same way, there is a preliminary 
stage in reading poetry when the grammar is still being settled, 
and the words have not all been given their due weight; you 
have a broad impression of what it is all about, but there are 
various incidental impressions wandering about in your mind; 
these may not be part of the final meaning arrived at by the 
judgment, but tend to be fixed in it as part of its colour. In the 
same way, there is a preliminary stage in writing poetry, when 
not all the grammar, but the grammar at crucial points of contact 
between different ideas, is liable to be often changed. There is 
a trivial but typical example of this in the two versions of the 
Crashaw Hymn for the Circumcision of our Lord, 

All the purple pride of Laces^ 

The crimson curtaines of thy bed ; 

Guild thee not with so sweet graces ; 

Nor set thee in so rich a red. (1646) 

All the purple pride that laces 
The crimson curtains of thy bed, 

Guilds thee not in so sweet graces 
Nor setts thee in so rich a red. (1652) 

I have assumed that much could be extracted from the fact 


that one syntax rather than another was selected for a poetical 
statement; this example shows the limitations of such a method. 
For, clearly, the verse is altered very little by these quite con- 
siderable changes in the grammar; it would be easy in a rapid 
reading to think they had been the same. It does not make 
much difference whether laces the noun or the verb is used, 
because, though their meaning is different, each reminds the 
reader of the other. So for the corresponding change in guildy 
it does \iOt matter whether this is said to be done by the pride or 
by the ujJholstery which expresses it; whichever syntax is 
chosen, the reader thinks of the guilding as done, in their re- 
spective ways, by both. Thus each of these versions includes 
the other among its possibilities; probably there is a stage for 
most readers when they have not yet noticed which syntax is, in 
fact, used. This example of the complexity of the absorption 
of grammar in poetry may be convincing because so simple ; it 
shows, by the way, what I have said already, that a poetical effect 
is not easily disturbed by altering a few words. 

One should also consider, not merely whether this generalising 
of the grammar at first occurs, but how scrupulously it is cleaned 
away ; how far, then, an attention to it will be profitable. Clearly, 
the critical principles of the author and of the public he is writing 
for will decide this to a considerable degree, and one has to bear 
them in mind in deciding whether a particular ambiguity is part 
of the total effect intended. (This is hardly a solemn warning, 
because they have to be borne in mind in any case.) Thus it is 
fair to hold the seventeenth century responsible for most of its 
ambiguities, because its taste seems to have been curiously free 
from such critical principles as interpose a judgment before 
the experience of accepting the poetry is completed. On the 
other hand, it would often be unprofitable to insist on the 
ambiguities of Pope, because he expected his readers to prune 
their minds of any early disorder as carefully as he had pruned 
his own. My eighteenth-century examples, therefore, have 
to depend on variations of grammar the authors would have 
thought trivial, puns which they had intended and thought 
intelligible, and variations of sense which spring from an effective 
superfici ility in their thought. But, in the same way, one must 
often ignore ambiguities in the seventeenth century, because 


they would be irrelevant to the total effect intended and so were 

not absorbed. 

Ben Jonson’s most famous poem gives a puzzling example of 

Drink to me only with thine eyes, 

And I will pledge with mine ; 

Or leave a kiss but in the cup 
And ril not look for wine. 

The thirst that from the soul doth rise 
Doth ask a drink divine ; 

But might I of Jove’s nectar sup 
I would not change for thine. 

The last two lines say the opposite of what is meant; I must 
take some credit for not putting this well-known case into tfie 
seventh type of ambiguity.^ But one has already decided from 
the rest of the verse that a simple lyrism is intended ; there are 
no other two-faced implications of any plausibility, and the word 
buty after all, admits of only one form for the antithesis. This is 
not to say that the last two lines are an accident, and should be 
altered; you may feel it gives a touching completeness to his 
fervour that he feels so sure no one will misunderstand him. 
And indeed, you may take the matter more seriously, so as to 
regard these lines as a true statement of two opposites. You may 
say that the irrelevant meaning was one to which Jonson was 
much better accustomed; that he may have been echoing, for 
the purposes of lyrism, some phrase he had used already at the 
Mermaid, to express poetical rather than amorous ambition; 
that he might then not notice till too late about the grammar; 
that in this sort of lyric, whose business it is to be whole-hearted 
to an exhausting degree, a man would naturally draw on any 
generous enthusiasm he had already phrased to himself warmly; 
and that, at any rate, the lines are a true hyperbole, since Jonson 
did very seriously feel the thirst of the soul for the divine draught 
of poetry. All this may be true, and these facts very interesting 
to the biographer, but they have nothing to do with the enjoy- 
ment of the poem. Of course, such a distinction is hard to draw, 
and those who enjoy poems must in part be biographers, but this 
extreme example may serve to make clear that it is not all 

^ The last two lines, unlike the rest, are not a translation ; u"0 one can’t 
settle the question that wav. 


significant ambiguities which are relevant, that I am talking less 
about the minds of poets than about the mode of action of poetry. 

This seems an important point, because I am treating the act 
of communication as something very extraordinary, so that the 
next step would be to lose faith in it altogether. It might seem 
more reasonable, when dealing with obscure alternatives of 
syntax, to abandon the claim that you are explaining a thing 
communicated, to say either that you are showing what happened 
in the author’s mind (this should interest the biographer) or 
what was IXely to happen in a reader’s mind (this should interest 
the poet). This might be more tidy, but, like many forms of 
doubt, it would itself claim to know too much ; the rules as to 
¥iiiat is conveyable are so much more mysterious even than the 
rules governing the effects of ambiguity, whether on the reader 
or the author, that it is better to talk about both parties at once, 
and be thankful if what you say is true about either. 

The problem as to belief in poetry might well be mentioned 
here ; as to whether it is necessary to share the opinions of the 
poet if you are to understand his sensibility. Very often it is 
necessary to believe them in a behaviouristic sense; you have 
to be well enough habituated to them to be able to imagine their 
consequences ; thus you have to be a person who is liable to act 
as if they were true. Certainly, if this is so, it becomes puzzling 
that we should be able to enjoy so many poets. The explanation 
seems to be that in the last few generations literary people have 
been trained socially to pick up hints at once about people’s 
opinions, and to accept them, while in the company of their 
owners, with as little fuss as possible ; I might say, putting this 
more strongly, that in the present state of indecision of the 
cultured world people do, in fact, hold all the beliefs, however 
contradictory, that turn up in poetry, in the sense that they are 
liable to use them all in coming to decisions. It is for reasons of 
this sort that the habit of reading a wide variety of different sorts 
of poetry, which has, after all, only recently been contracted by 
any public as a whole, gives to the act of appreciation a puzzling 
complexity, tends to make people less sure of their own minds, 
and makes it necessary to be able to fall back on some intelligible 
process (|F interpretation. Thus one finds it hard, in reading 
some pass%es of Keats, to realise that they were long enjoyed 


empirically, without the theoretical reassurance now given by the 
psycho-analysts ; the same applies to the ‘ anthropological ’ writings 
of mystics, like those lines from Crashaw in my last chapter. 

One’s situation here is very like that of the visualiser who 
cannot imagine enjoying poetry without seeing the pictures on 
which he relies; any intellectual framework that seems relevant 
is very encouraging (as one sees from the cocksureness of the 
scientists) whether it actually ‘explains’ anything or not; if you 
feel that your reactions could be put into a rational scheme that 
you can roughly imagine, you become willing, for Instance, to 
abandon yourself to the ecstasies of the Romantic Movement, 
with a much lower threshold of necessary excitement, with much 
less fear for your critical self-respect. Thus it is very greatly‘*to 
the credit of the eighteenth century that it accepted Shakespeare ; 
indeed Dr. Johnson was much more sure that his humour was 
first-rate (nobody wants to feel a joke could be explained) than 
that his methods of rousing the more far-reaching sentiments of 
tragedy were to be admitted. The same machinery of reassur- 
ance, I suppose, is sought for in my use of phrases like ‘ outside 
the focus of consciousness,’ without very definite support from 
psychological theory. To give a reassurance of this kind, indeed, 
is the main function of criticism. 

Many people who would admit that there is a great deal of 
ambiguity in poetry, and that it is important, will consider that 
I have gone on piling up ambiguities on to particular cases till 
the ‘whole thing’ becomes absurd ; ‘you can’t expect us to be- 
lieve all that.’ I have, in fact, been as complete as I could in 
cases that seemed to deserve it, and considered whether each of 
the details was reasonable, not whether the result was reasonable 
as a whole. For these analytical methods are usually employed 
casually and piecemeal, with an implication that the critic has 
shown tact by going no further; if they are flung together into a 
heap they make, I think, rather a different impression, and this 
at any rate is a test to which it is proper that they should be 
subjected. If the reader has found me expounding the obvious 
and accepted at tedious length, he must remember that English 
literary critics have been so unwilling to appear niggling and 
lacking in soul that upon these small technical points thV obvious, 
even the accepted, has been said culpably seldom. 


This attitude, however, can be justified; the position of a 
literary critic is far more a social than a scientific one. There is 
no question of dealing finally with the matter, because, in so far 
as people are always reading an author, he is always being read 
differently. It is the business of the critic to extract for his public 
what it wants ; to organise, what he may indeed create, the taste 
of his period. So that literature, in so far as it is a living matter, 
demands a sense, not so much of what is really there, as of what 
is neceSsary to carry a particular situation ‘off.’ Detailed ex- 
planation, In the literary as in the social field, calls up a reaction 
of suspicion ; ‘ Why is he wasting our time, nagging us about this 
thing, when everybody knows it is all right } What good will it 
In the same way, the analyst must be humbled by that 
story about Proust asking his duchesses why and how they came 
into a drawing-room like duchesses; they could not tell him, 
and the only result was to make them laugh when they saw him 
come into a drawing-room himself. It does not even satisfy the 
understanding to stop living in order to understand. 

This social comparison or derivation may be worked out in 
some detail, and involves the problems of my first chapter. Thus 
the relation of Meaning to Pure Sound is very closely paralleled 
by the relation of Character to Looks; this may serve to show 
how very completely one may have to behave, in practice, as if 
the theory of Pure Sound was true. The fundamental source of 
pleasure about Looks is an apprehension of Character; a change 
in one’s knowledge of the Character alters (by altering the 
elements selected) one’s apprehension of the Looks. The 
Beauty resides in the Sound and the Looks; but these, being 
aesthetic constructions, are largely distillations (solutions into 
forms immediately conceivable) from the Meaning and the 

As to say that the Meaning (rather than the Sound) is what 
matters about poetry, so it seems very intellectual and puritanical 
to say that Character (rather than Looks) is what matters about 
people; un both cases those who do so can save the phenomena 
by invoking first pre-conscious and then instinctive modes of 
apprehension; in both cases they are using, for the satisfaction 
of the mfid, words belonging to the more intelligible part of a 
scale about the whole scale. And both involve the intellectual 


fallacy that regards the mind as something otherwise passive 
that collects propositions; or the assumption that truth is valu- 
able in the abstract rather than as something digested so as to 
be useful. In both cases one can partly get over this by saying 
that it is less the Meaning that matters than ‘what it means to 
you/ that it is less the Character itself that is apprehended than 
its possible relations with your own. And, of course, in both 
cases, the distinction which I am teasing so pitilessly is largely a 
verbal one which most people regard as indifferent; some one 
may say he reads Swinburne for the Sound and George Herbert 
for the Meaning, but he would not eagerly deny that he reads 
them both for Meaning conveyed in different ways ; a business 
man engaging a secretary may feel a distinction between Look» 
and Character, but he would not find it absurd to call this a 
distinction between two sorts of character estimated in terms 
of Looks. 

A reader may have regarded this parallel as a kind of theoretical 
joke; if so, it will have been misleading, because as a joke it 
involves a moral element and depends on an ambiguity. In both 
cases there is a noble-naughty scale (corresponding in part to the 
power of the thing to survive analysis if it could be analysed), and 
also an intellectual-instinctive scale (corresponding in part to the 
ease or difficulty with which such analysis could be performed) ; 
in both cases it is a naive intellectualism or Puritanism which 
mixes the two scales up together. I must confess it is not very 
far from this fallacy to make the assumption in the first bracket ; 
to say, as I did in my first chapter, that only bad poems are hurt 
by analysis (p. i6). There is no necessary reason why this should 
be true, and it is worth noticing an important class of readers 
for whom it is not. 

Many works of art give their public a sort of relief and strength, 
because they are independent of the moral code which their 
public accepts and is dependent on; relief, by fantasy gratifica- 
tion; strength, because it gives you a sort of equilibrium within 
your boundaries to have been taken outside them, however 
secretly, because you know your own boundaries better when you 
have seen them from both sides. Such works give a valuable 
imaginative experience, and such a public cannot affoi d to have 
them analysed; the Crashaw poems in my last chapter may be 


examples of this state of things. And I suspect that the parallel 
of personal with poetical beauty still holds good; that there are 
some excellent people who rightly admire their neighbour’s 
Looks, for valid reasons of Character, which they would find 
shocking if they could understand them. 

Under these rather special circumstances one should try to 
prevent people from having to analyse their reactions, with all 
the tact at one’s disposal ; nor are they so special as might appear. 
The object of life, after all, is not to understand things, but to 
maintain one’s defences and equilibrium and live as well as one 
can; it is not only maiden aunts who are placed like this. And 
one must remember (since I am saying the best I can for the 
enemy) that, as a first approximation, or a general direction, to 
people who really do not know how to read poetry, the dogma of 
Pure Sound often acts as a recipe for aesthetic receptiveness, and 
may be necessary. 

So that to defend analysis in general one has to appeal to the 
self-esteem of the readers of the analysis, and assume that they 
possess a quality that is at present much respected. They must 
possess a fair amount of equilibrium or fairly strong defences; 
they must have the power first of reacting to a poem sensitively 
and definitely (one may call that feminine) and then, having fixed 
the reaction, properly stained, on a slide, they must be able to 
turn the microscope on to it with a certain indifference and 
without smudging it with their fingers; they must be able to 
prevent their new feelings of the same sort from interfering with 
the process of understanding the original ones (one may call that 
‘masculine’) and have enough detachment not to mind what 
their sources of satisfaction may turn out to be. (‘Fixed’ in the 
last sentence is a metaphor from printing snapshots; on second 
thoughts, it is better than the microscopical one, because after 
all a microscope is not available.) This quality is admired at 
present because it gives one a certain power of dealing with 
anything that may turn out to be true; and people have come to 
feel that that may be absolutely anything. I do not say that this 
power is of unique value ; it tends to prevent the sensibility from 
having its proper irrigating and fertilising effect upon the person 
as a whjle; a medieval sensibility may have been more total and 
satisfying than a modern one. But it is widely and reasonably 


felt that those people are better able to deal with our present 
difficulties whose defences are strong enough for them to be able 
to afford to understand things; nor can I conceal my sympathy 
with those who want to understand as many things as possible, 
and to hang those consequences which cannot be foreseen. 

After this statement of preference I must return to what I 
have just called its fallacy, and discuss whether the scientific idea 
of truth is relevant to poetry at all. I have been trying to analyse 
verses which a great variety of critics have enjoyed but only 
described in terms of their effects ; thus I have claimed to show 
how a properly-qualified mind works when it reads the verses, 
how those properly-qualified minds have worked which have not 
at all understood their own working. It would be tempting, 
then, to say I was concerned with science rather than with 
beauty; to treat poetry as a branch of applied psychology. But, 
so far as poetry can be regarded altogether dispassionately, so 
far as it is an external object for examination, it is dead poetry 
and not worth examining; further, so far as a critic has made 
himself dispassionate about it, so far as he has repressed sym- 
pathy in favour of curiosity, he has made himself incapable of 
examining it. 

This is not simply the old difficulty about what subjects can 
be treated by the scientific method; at least, it is here more 
difficult. For instance, one might apply the above argument to 
medicine; ‘those bodies which can rightly be regarded dis- 
passionately are not worth curing.' This may not seem very 
convincing, but it has been argued; it is the root of the objection 
to vivisection, and made the Russian Orthodox Church forbid 
the use of medical textbooks. However, there are, on the face of 
it, two ways of dealing with bodies; what is found as truth from 
bodies not considered valuable is found to work as goodness 
upon bodies that are so considered; and, even more important, 
the same body can effectively be considered both ways at once ; 
certainly there are difficulties such as appear in the doctor’s 
objections to psycho-analysis, but the separation is possible. 
But poetry is not like bodies, because the act of knowing is itself 
an act of sympathising; unless you are enjoying the poetry you 
cannot create it, as poetry, in your mind. The scientific idea of 
truth is that the mind, otherwise passive, collects propositions 


about the outside world; the application of scientific ideas to 
poetry is interesting because it reduces that idea of truth (much 
more intimately than elsewhere) to a self-contradiction. 

The human situation is oddly riddled with these antinomies, 
and, when they seem completely solved by intuition, there is not 
much object in separating them out; thus I have a vague im- 
pression that Proust has listed a great many reasons why it is 
impossible to be happy, but, in the course of being happy, one 
finds it difficult to remember them. Still, it seems proper here 
to considei how intuition ought to solve this antinomy, to say how 
the analysis of pbetry can be useful, and indeed what it can be. 

On the face of it, there are two sorts of literary critic, the 
appreciative and the analytical; the difficulty is that they have 
all got to be both. An appreciator produces literary effects 
similar to the one he is appreciating, and sees to it, perhaps by 
using longer and plainer language, or by concentrating on one 
element of a combination, that his version is more intelligible 
than the original to the readers he has in mind. Having been 
shown what to look for, they are intended to go back to the 
original and find it there for themselves. Parodies are apprecia- 
tive criticisms in this sense, and much of Proust reads like the 
work of a superb appreciative critic upon a novel which has 
unfortunately not survived. The analyst is not a teacher in this 
way; he assumes that something has been conveyed to the 
reader by the work under consideration, and sets out to explain, 
in terms of the rest of the reader’s experience, why the work has 
had the effect on him that is assumed. As an analyst he is not 
repeating the effect; he may even be preventing it from happen- 
ing again. Now, evidently the appreciator has got to be an 
analyst, because the only way to say a complicated thing more 
simply is to separate it into its parts and say each of them in turn. 
The analyst has also got to be an appreciator; because he must 
convince the reader that he knows what he is talking about (that 
he has had the experience which is in question) ; because he must 
be able to show the reader which of the separate parts of the 
experience he is talking about, after he has separated them; and 
because he must coax the reader into seeing that the cause he 
names loes, in fact, produce the effect which is experienced; 
otherwise they will not seem to have anything to do with each 


other. On the other hand, once the analyst has abandoned him- 
self to being also an appreciator, he can never be sure that he lias 
explained an5rthing; if he seems to have explained something, it 
may be because he has managed to do the same unexplained 
thing over again. Thus, in finding several words to convey the 
mode of action of a single word in a poem, I do not, of course, 
claim that the new words are any more simple in their action than 
the old one; a word is of the nature of an organism, or of the 
nature of the part of an organism; not by a small series of pro- 
positions, but by a new piece of writing, must one sharpen a 
reader’s apprehension of the way it is being used. And yet it is 
precisely the nature of a ‘piece of writing’ which is supposed to 
be undergoing analysis. 

Mention of Sir Richard Paget’s tongue-gestures, in my first 
chapter, led to an alarming notion; that it was no use trying to 
say how a poem came to take effect as it did because one could 
not say how much of the effect was being produced by sound- 
effects, such as belong to the nature of language and have not 
yet been explained in sufficient detail. The answer is that such 
an explanation as I have attempted need not be complete because 
of the nature of its process; it should imply, by its own writing, 
both how much of the effect is produced by the one device 
explained and how much is left as at present inexplicable. 

The process, then, must be that of alternating between, or 
playing off against one another, these two sorts of criticism. 
When you have made a quotation, you must first show the reader 
how you feel about it, by metaphor, implication, devices of sound, 
or anything else that will work; on the other hand, when you 
wish to make a critical remark, to explain why your quotation 
takes effect as it does, you must state your result as plainly (in as 
transferable, intellectually handy terms) as you can. You may 
say that this distinction is false, because in practice one must do 
both at once, but I think it is useful ; one can apply it, for in- 
stance, to that problem about how much one is to say the obvious 
which always seems to hamper the analytical critic. 

Certainly, in appreciative criticism, where you are trying to 
show the reader how you feel about a poetical effect, it is im- 
portant not to tease him ; it is annoying to read platitudes in such 
work because they interfere with the process, which is essentially 


that of repeating the original effect, in a plainer form. But in an 
analysis, whose object is to show the modes of action of a poetical 
effect, the author may safely insist on the obvious because the 
reader feels willing that the process should be complete. Indeed, 
it is then as arrogant in the author to hint at a subtlety as to 
explain it too fully; firstly, because he implies that those who 
do not know it already are not worth his notice; secondly, 
because he assumes#that there is no more to know. For some 
readers may take the subtlety in question for granted, so they 
will think the hint must refer to something still more subtle. 

Not to explain oneself at length in such a case is a snobbery 
in the author and excites an opposing snobbery in the reader; 
it is a distressing and common feature of modern aesthetics, due 
much more to disorientation and a forlorn sense that the matter 
is inexplicable (it is no use appealing to the reason of ordinary 
people, one has got to keep up one’s dignity) than to any un- 
fortunate qualities in the aestheticians. That is one of the 
reasons why the cult of irrationalism is such a bore ; analytical 
is more cheerful than appreciative criticism (both, of course, 
must be present) precisely because there is less need to agonise 
over these questions of tone. 

It may be said that the business of analysis is to progress from 
poetical to prosaic, from intuitive to intellectual, knowledge; 
evidently these are just the same sort of opposites, in that each 
assumes the other is also there. But the idea of this doublet 
certainly enshrines some of the advantages of analysis, and it may 
be as well to show how I have been using it. You may know 
what it will be satisfying to do for the moment ; precisely how 
you are feeling; how to express the thing conceived clearly, but 
alone, in your mind. That, in its appreciation of, and depend- 
ence on, the immediate object or state of mind, is poetical 
knowledge. (It is true that poetry is largely the perception of the 
relations between several such things, but then it is the relations 
which are known poetically.) You may, on the other hand, be 
able to put the object known into a field of similar objects, in 
some order, so that it has some degree of balance and safety; 
you may know several ways of getting to the thing, other things 
like it b it different, enough of its ingredients and the way they 
are put together to retain control over the situation if some 


are missing or if the conditions are altered; the thing can be 
said to your neighbours, and has enough valencies in your mind 
for it to be connected with a variety of other things into a variety 
of different classes. That, from its administrative point of view, 
from its desire to put the thing known into a coherent structure, 
is prosaic knowledge. Thus a poetical word is a thing conceived 
in itself and includes all its meanings; a prosaic word is flat and 
useful and might have been used differently. 

One cannot conceive observation except in terms of compari- 
son, or comparison except as based on recognition; immediate 
knowledge and past experience presuppose one another; thus 
the question in any particular case must be largely as to what is 
uppermost in your mind. But this way of using the word-pair 
at least gives one an answer against those who say that analysis 
is bad for poetry; it often happens that, for historical reasons or 
what not, one can no longer appreciate a thing directly by poetical 
knowledge, and yet can rediscover it in a more controlled form 
by prosaic knowledge. 

But even if we abandon the oppositions between thought and 
feeling, and attend to the intellectual notion of explanation, the 
situation is not much more encouraging. It is a matter of luck 
whether or not you have in your language or your supply of 
intellectual operations anything which, for a particular problem, 
will be of use ; and this may be true even in a field of known 
limitation, for instance, it is a matter of luck whether you can find 
a construction in Euclidean geometry (it would remain so even 
if you always could) ; whereas in Analytical geometry there will 
always be a way of setting about the proof of a proposition, if it 
is a recognisably geometrical one, but it is a matter of luck 
whether or not it is too complicated for human patience. And it 
is only by chance that these two matters of chance will work out 
the same in a particular case . Things temporarily or permanently 
inexplicable are not, therefore, to be thought of as essentially 
different from things that can be explained in some terms you 
happen to have at your disposal; nor can you have reason to 
think them likely to be different unless there is a great deal about 
the inexplicable things that you already know. Explanations of 
literary matters, to elaborate a perhaps rather trivial .nalogy, 
involving as they do much apparently random invention, are 


more like Pure than Analytical geometry, and, if you cannot 
think of a construction, that may show that you would be wise 
to use a different set of methods, but cannot show the problem 
is of a new kind. 

I have been insisting on this because it seems important that 
people should believe that such explanations are possible, even 
if they have never yet been performed; but the analogy is useful 
in another way, through giving the notion of a construction. 
Continually, in order to paraphrase a piece of verse, it is neces- 
sary to drag in some quite irrelevant conceptions; thus I have 
often been puzzied by finding it necessary to go and look things 
up in order to find machinery to express distinctions that were 
already in my mind; indeed, this is involved in the very notion 
of that activity, for how else would one know what to look up ? 
Such machinery is necessary, partly so as to look as if you knew 
what you were talking about, partly as a matter of ‘style,’ and 
partly from the basic assumption of prose that all the parts of 
speech must have some meaning. (These three give the same 
idea with increasing generality.) Otherwise, one would be con- 
tinually stating relations between unknown or indefinite objects, 
or only stating something about such relations, themselves un- 
known and indefinite, in a way which probably reflects accur- 
ately the nature of your statement, but to which only the pure 
mathematician is accustomed. So that many of my explanations 
may be demonstrably wrong, and yet efficient for their purpose, 
and vice versa. 

The notion of a construction also shows the dangers of the 
process it describes. With a moderate intellectual apparatus one 
should be able to draw irrelevant distinctions without limit, and 
even those that are of linguistic interest need not be of interest 
to a reader of the poem. When a poem refers simply and un- 
ambiguously to a field it is usually possible to plant a hedge 
across the field, and say triumphantly that two contiguous fields 
were being described by an ambiguity. This may be of some use 
in that it shows the field to have extension, but one must not 
suppose that there is anything in a right apprehension of the 
field which corresponds to one’s own hedge. Thus I think my 
seven types form an immediately useful set of distinctions, but 
to a more serious analysis they would probably appear trivial 


and hardly to be distinguished from one another. I call them 
useful, not merely as a means of stringing examples, but because, 
in complicated matters, any distinction between cases, however 
irrelevant, may serve to heighten one’s consciousness of the 
cases themselves. 

Since, however, I admit that the analysis of a poem can only 
be a long way of saying what is said anyhow by the poem it 
analyses, that it does not show how the devices it describes can 
be invented or used, that it gives no source of information about 
them which can replace that of normal sensibility, and that it is 
only tolerable in so far as it is in some way useful, I suppose I 
ought, in conclusion, to say what use I think it can be. It need 
not be any. Normal sensibility is a tissue of what has been 
conscious theory made habitual and returned to the pre-con- 
scious, and, therefore, conscious theory may make an addition 
to sensibility even though it draws no (or no true) conclusion, 
formulates no general theory, in the scientific sense, which 
reconciles and makes quickly available the results which it 
describes. Such an advance in the machinery of description 
makes a reader feel stronger about his appreciations, more 
reliably able to distinguish the private or accidental from the 
critically important or repeatable, more confident of the reality 
(that is, the transferability) of his experiences ; adds, in short, 
in the mind of the reader to the things there to be described, 
whether or not it makes those particular things more describable. 
What is needed for literary satisfaction is not, ‘this is beautiful 
because of such and such a theory,’ but ‘this is all right; I am 
feeling correctly about this; I know the kind of way in which 
it is meant to be affecting me.’ 

Of course, this distinction is not new, but it needs repeating; 
indeed, one often finds the surrealist type of critic saying that 
poetry would have been just the same if no criticism had ever 
been written. So Pope, for instance, would have written just 
the same if he had had no critical dogmas. Now it is unwise to 
say blankly that a theorist is talking nonsense (for instance, it is 
no use saying that all men are not equal) because he may con- 
sciously be making a paradox to imply a larger truth; thus, even 
here, there would be a little truth in saying that Pope could afford 
to forget his dogmas, so deeply had they become part of h^s 


sensibility. And certainly one is again faced with the problem 
about the hen and the egg; the dogma produces the sensibility, 
but it must itself have been produced by it. But to say that the 
dogma does not influence the sensibility is absurd. People only 
say it when they are trying to put the sensibility in a peculiar 
state of control over the dogma. The conflict between the 
scientific and aesthetic points of view, between which I have been 
trying to arbitrate, gives them a reason; people feel uncertain as 
to wha:: sort of validity a critical dogma can have, how far one 
ought to be trying to be independent of one’s own age, how far 
one ought to be trying to be independent of one’s own preferences, 
and do not want their sensibility to be justified by reasons because 
they are afraid that once they start reasoning they will fall into 
the wrong point of view. Another such cause, arising out of this, 
has been mentioned already; it is only recently that the public, 
as a whole, has come to admire a great variety of different styles 
of poetry, requiring a great variety of critical dogmas, simultane- 
ously, so as to need not so much a single habit for the reading of 
poetry as a sort of understanding which enables one to jump 
neatly from one style to another. This produces a sort of anxious 
watchfulness over the feelings excited by poetry; it is important 
not to forget what sort of poetry this is and so allow oneself to 
have the wrong feelings. 

For such reasons, then, it is necessary for us to protect our 
sensibility against critical dogma, but it is just because of this 
that the reassurance given by some machinery for analysis has 
become so necessary in its turn. Thus I suppose that all present- 
day readers of poetry would agree that some modern poets are 
charlatans, though different people would attach this floating 
suspicion to different poets ; but they have no positive machinery, 
such as Dr. Johnson thought he had, to a great extent rightly, 
by which such a fact could be proved. It is not that such 
machinery is unknown so much as that it is unpopular; people 
feel that, because it must always be inadequate, it must always 
be unfair. The result is a certain lack of positive satisfaction in 
the reading of any poetry; doubt becomes a permanent back- 
ground of the mind, both as to whether the thing is being inter- 
preted ightly and as to whether, if it is, one ought to allow one- 
self to leel pleased. Evidently, in the lack of any machinery of 

2s6 seven types of ambiguity 

analysis, such as can be thought moderately reliable, to decide 
whether one’s attitude is right, this leads to a sterility of emotion 
such as makes it hardly worth while to read the poetrj at all. 
It is not surprising, then, that this age should need, if not really 
an explanation of any one sort of poetry, still the general assur- 
ance which comes of a belief that all sorts of poetry may be 
conceived as explicable. 

I should claim, then, that for those who find this book contains 
novelties, it will make poetry more beautiful, without their ever 
having to remember the novelties, or endeavour to apply them. 
It seems a sufficient apology for many niggling pages. 


Anon., 48, 1 14, 162 

Beerbohm, Max, 176-7 
Brooke, Rupert, 205 
Browning, 20, 28 

Carew, 105, 173 
Chaucer, 58-68, 74 
Coleridge, 20, 238 
Crashaw, 116, 217-24, 240, 246 

Donne, 51, 71, 124, 139-47, 

Dryden, 7, 74-6, 106-7, i 98 " 9 » 
219, 222 

Eliot, T. S., 62, 77-9, 88, 157-60 

Fitzgerald, 182 
Ford, 155 

Freud, 162, 194, 223, 226 

Gibbon, 71 
Gray, 77, 121-3 
Grierson, H. J. C., 140 

Herbert, 118-19, 129-31, 175, 
183-4, 218, 224, 226-33 
Herrick, 162 
Hood, 109-12 
Hopkins, G. M., 148, 225 
Housman, A. E., 32 

Johnson, 12, 68, 87, 107-8, 114, 
12 1 -3, 199, 244, 255 
Jonson, 27, 242 

Keats, 20, 205, 214-17 

Lovelace. 209-10 
Lyly, 168 

Marlowe, 31, 206 
Marvell, 80, 104-6, 166-73 
Meredith, 20 

Milton, 12, 102-4, ^^7 

Nash, 25-7, 1 15 
Nicolson, Harold, 20 

Paget, Sir Richard, 14-15, 250 
Peacock, 22 

Pope, 22, 70-4, 83, 108, I 17, 
125-8, 149-51, 185, 203-4, 

Proust, 1 3 1, 245, 249 
Punchy 65 

Racine, 6 

Read, Herbert, 2 

Richards, I. A., 148, 225, 238 

Scott, Sir Walter, 118 
Shakespeare, 46, 49, 59, 80-8, 
155, 206 

AlVs Well that Ends Well 95, 


CoriolanuSy 42-3, 90, 207 
Hamlet, 91, 96-7, 211-14 
I Henry IV, 93, 97, 116, 206 
Henry V, 1 12-13 
Lear, 45, 89 

Macbeth, 18-20, 45, 49, 82-3, 
10 1, 200-3, 209 
Measure for Measure, 84, 92, 
100, 155, 180, 202 
Merchant of Venice, 43-4 
Othello, 90, 93, 94, 185-6 
Sonnets, 2, 50-6, 86, 133-8 
Troilus and Cressida, 93, 99, 
178-180, 209 
Twelfth Night, 98 


2s8 index 

Shelley, 20, 156-61, 166 
Sidney, 34-8 
Sitwell, Edith, 12-14 
Spenser, 33-4, 173. ^ 5 ^ 207-8 
Stein, Gertrude, 7 
Swinburne, 13, 20, 163-5, 21 1 
Synge, 4-5, 38-42 

Tennyson, n, 20, 182 
Theobald, 83-6 

Vaughan, 174-5 
Vergil, 10 

Waley, Arthur, 23 
Wilde, Oscar, 187 
Wordsworth, 20, 151-4, 19° 

Yeats, W. B., 187-90 
Young, 108 

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at Hopetoun Street, Edinburgh, 
by T. and A. Constable Ltd. 
Pnnters to the University of Edinburgh